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Volume 679: debated on Monday 7 September 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Free Speech: Universities

We are all shocked and saddened to learn of the incident in which a young person was seriously hurt on their way to school in Suffolk today. Our thoughts are very much with the young person, their family and the whole school community at this difficult time.

Free speech is a fundamental underpinning of Britain’s liberal democracy, and universities should always do as much as possible to champion it, ensuring that students, staff and visiting speakers are free to explore a range of ideas and challenge perceived wisdom. We are exploring a range of legislative and non-legislative options to ensure that this is the case.

If universities are not prepared to enforce free speech, is my right hon. Friend prepared to legislate to ensure they do?

Many of us take free speech as an absolute given and expect it to be an absolute given in every part of this country, and if legislation is required, that is what we will do. But it is not just at universities that we sometimes see a challenge to free speech. Conservative Members understand the importance of free speech, whether in universities or a free press, and that is why we will always be the ones who stand up for a free press so that people can enjoy their newspapers every single day.

University Student Numbers

What steps the Government is taking to support universities accepting higher numbers of domestic students as a result of the recent policy change on predicted A-level grades. (905490)

What steps the Government is taking to support universities accepting higher numbers of domestic students as a result of the change in policy on predicted A-level grades. (905503)

What steps his Department is taking to help universities increase the number of places available to students in 2020-21. (905512)

We are working across Government and closely with the higher education sector, utilising the higher education taskforce I have created, to ensure that the vast majority of students who want to go to university this year can do so at the university that their grades unlock.

Universities need financial support to expand physical buildings and facilities and to fund the expansion of wellbeing and support services and other important areas of university life. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this additional support will be granted to ensure that his algorithm does not cost thousands of students their futures, and when will he do this?

Last week, in fact, we announced a £10 million capital fund to cover capital as well as equipment. This is on top of our announcement of additional funding to support high-cost subjects and the announcements we made in May for the sustainability of the sector, and is supported by the package of £280 million from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

In a recent National Union of Students survey, 55% of students reported that the income of their parents or those who provided financial support to them had been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and 80% were worried about how they would cope financially, not to mention the fact that part-time jobs will be in short supply. Given that the university hardship funds were not designed for such demand, what extra provision will the Government make to ensure that universities can properly support students facing hardship?

If a student is not already accessing the maximum loan and the income of their parents or carers has changed, they should fill in a change of income form with the Student Loans Company. On the hardship funds, we have worked with the Office for Students so that it can show more flexibility, and the funds will amount to £256 million for the coming academic year.

My constituent, Hannah Moat, is one of the top high-jump athletes in the UK and was on track to study psychology and criminology at Loughborough University. Unfortunately, owing to a clerical error that someone made when inputting her centre-assessed grade, she has so far been denied her place on that course. Will the Minister work with me to make sure that students such as Hannah who have been affected by administrative errors made by their schools will not be denied their place at university?

I am really sorry to hear about the problems that Hannah is experiencing. The exam boards have committed to turning around appeals quickly, and Hannah and her school should inform the university of the situation. I have agreed with all universities that all students, including those successful on appeal, with the required grades will be offered a place at their first-choice university and that deferred places will be offered only as a last resort. Specific admissions cases are the responsibility of individual institutions, but I will alert Loughborough to this case.

I share the serious concerns of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that the annual mass migration of millions of students to university means that significant outbreaks of covid-19 are “highly likely”. Universities have worked hard to make campuses covid secure, but the Department must take responsibility and ownership of this crisis and recognise that most students live, work and socialise outside the campuses. When will universities and communities receive the updated guidance on safe reopening promised in a DFE press release late on Friday night? What additional testing capacity is being deployed to keep staff, students and communities safe, and will the Minister make a statement this week on the safe reopening of universities?

SAGE did indeed publish its updated guidance on Friday, and the Government will issue updated guidance this week that supplements our original guidance of months ago. The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is always our priority. As SAGE pointed out, there is also evidence that physical and mental health will be impacted if universities do not open. Universities have worked hard to ensure that they are well prepared for covid and have prioritised safety and wellbeing, including by introducing numerous social distancing and covid-secure measures.

School Exercise: Covid-19

What steps the Government are taking to prioritise access to exercise in schools as part of catch-up education as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (905491)

The return to school is an important opportunity to support pupils to increase their physical activity. The Department’s guidance includes information on how schools can provide physical education and opportunities for pupils to be active, including links to detailed advice from the subject organisations.

I think that is a disappointing answer because we know that, going into this crisis, councils were already having to deal with the fact that they had had £42 million cut from their sports budget, which has a knock-on impact on schools. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to put on record what he personally is going to do to increase funding support to make sure our kids are physically active at school?

It was a Conservative Government who introduced the sports premium, and it is a Conservative Government who are ensuring that £320 million is going out to schools so they can ensure that youngsters have the kind of activity they want to see. Returning to school, yes, is incredibly important for the learning that all children benefit from, but it is also about the physical health they will get from being back at school. We are backing this with that money and ensuring there are great sports activities in all schools right across the country.

Home Education: Grades/Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to allocate grades to home-educated students who were unable to take public examinations as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (905492)

Exams will be available in all GCSE, AS and A-level subjects in the autumn. Schools and colleges that accepted entries from private candidates, including home-educated students, in the summer should enter those who wish to sit an exam, and there should be no financial barriers to their doing so.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I want to raise with him the issue of my constituent Ella Hampson, a year 10 home-educated student. She was due to take several GCSEs a year early, but the decision to withdraw private candidates meant that, unlike her friends and her peers, she was not given estimated grades on GCSE day. That caused a delay, and she has not been able to move on to college in the way that she had hoped. In any event, she has been told by her exam centre that she needs to be 16 on 31 August, so is not eligible for the autumn examinations as she is only 15. What advice can the Minister give Ella about how to get the grades to recognise the work she has done this year?

Private candidates who were entered for the summer series or whom the school intended to enter for the summer are eligible to enter the autumn series. The candidate’s age is actually not relevant. We expect the school or college that enters students for the summer series to enter them for the autumn.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many thousands of private candidates, including mature students and those undertaking resits, have been left without a grade under this year’s exam arrangements and unable to progress to the next stage of their education or employment. Will the Minister ensure that UCAS predicted grades are confirmed for all external candidates, provide them—just to confirm—with the option to sit autumn exams free of charge, ensure that the highest grade of the UCAS result and autumn resit will be awarded, and urge universities to honour their offers for a September 2021 start date? Will he allow those external candidates who have received a centre-assessed grade to appeal against their results?

My right hon. Friend raises some important points. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities said, universities are being flexible on entry to universities this year. Schools, colleges and further education colleges are able to provide additional support for students sitting their exams in the autumn if they have the capacity to do so. Schools can also now use their pupil premium funding to support these pupils. The autumn exams are an important backstop to the summer grade process, and we are helping schools to offer them to students by assisting with additional space and invigilators, where required.

Further Education College Finances

Colleges are facing financial uncertainty as a result of covid-19, and many face reductions in commercial income and uncertainty with apprenticeship starts. We have a team, including skilled finance professionals, who are working closely to support colleges, and we are also working with banks to ensure access to commercial lending where required. Since April, only five colleges have needed to access emergency funding.

Further education colleges provide lifelong learning, and they will be essential if we are to provide the levelling-up agenda that the Prime Minister speaks so fondly of. However, coronavirus has left many with a black hole in their funding. We understand that it could be as much as £2 billion, and at the moment we are facing unprecedented demand. I fear that the Government do not understand the value of further education to the economy and the new skills we require in this country. FE colleges are flexible and adaptable, and they can help many young people who have been let down by this Government during the fiasco of the GCSE and A-level results. Will the Minister confirm today that she will look into this and provide the necessary funding, which, according to the Sixth Form Colleges Association, should be £4,760 per year for 16 to 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds?

Let me assure the hon. Lady that we absolutely have FE colleges at the very heart and centre. We are planning a big reform of the sector, and as somebody who went to FE college myself from the age of 16, I am absolutely passionate about this area. The colleges have done an amazing job in responding to covid-19 to support students throughout coronavirus. We continue to pay the grant funding and monthly payments for 2019-20, and will do so for 2020-21. We have also provided catch-up funding of £96 million for small group tutoring for disadvantaged students who need it. On top of that, we have allocated £200 million to enable FE colleges to improve their buildings. We have a team of officials right now working with every college that needs that support. We are working with 40, and so far only five have needed financial assistance, but we will keep this under review.

The Government’s own commissioner for further education has warned that as many as 40 colleges are currently at risk of running out of cash, and despite the measures that the Minister has just spoken of, the Association of Colleges is warning of a £2 billion cash shortfall. We also know from the May report that the Government have inadequate mechanisms for identifying colleges in crisis, so the truth is that all those measures that the Minister speaks about simply are not enough. We need far greater action if we are going to see our colleges and their pupils and staff not being let down and left in financial crisis this autumn.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Just so we are clear, we have provided grant funding to the FE sector, with more than £3 billion for a full year, and it received that gratefully. We have also announced an increase of £400 million for 2020-21, an increase of 7% in overall funding. As he rightly said—and as I said in answer to the earlier question—we are working with 40 colleges to structure their finances and helping them to get the advice and support they need. If they need emergency funding, as has been available, it will be available to them as well. We have a team of people working on this all the time, and the colleges accept that we are putting our arms around them to ensure that they get through this period.

Testing, Marking and Examination Systems

Exams are the best and fairest way of judging students’ performance. Following the difficulties experienced with awarding grades this summer, we are determined that exams should go ahead next year. We are working with Ofqual, the exams boards and other stakeholders to consider our approach to ensure that they are fair.

The Minister is the one permanent feature in the Department for Education—he has been there for 10 years—but surely he must admit that many families and students were hurt by the chaos and instability in his Department. It is no good trying to blame Ofqual and Ofsted; the responsibility lies in the instability and lack of firm leadership in his Department. What is he going to do about it?

When we were aware of the problems with the A-level results, we took swift action. Ofqual decided to move to centre-assessment grades and within 48 hours of that decision being taken the recalculated A-level grades were sent to all schools. The GCSE results on the new basis were also given to schools to enable them to give them to their students on the scheduled day, 20 August. The model used to ensure we were able to give students qualifications, notwithstanding the fact that we had to cancel exams because of the pandemic, was supported in a wide-ranging consultation by the regulator. It was supported by 89% of respondents, and a similar model was used in all four nations of the United Kingdom.

The fiasco surrounding last month’s exam results caused huge distress to students, their parents and teachers, and chaos for universities and colleges. Now it turns out that the Secretary of State was repeatedly warned of the dangers of the system of calculated grades and the flawed standardisation methodology he adopted. He was warned by a former senior official of the Department, he was warned by the regulator and he was warned by what happened in Scotland. Why did he ignore those warnings?

Those warnings were not ignored. Every time we heard from people such as Cambridge Assessment, Jon Coles and others, we raised those issues with Ofqual. All the various challenges made by individuals were raised with Ofqual. We were assured by the regulator that overall the model was fair. We pressed Ofqual strongly on the appeals arrangements that would address any issues for individual students which arose as a result of the operation of the model. No model is as accurate as young people taking the exams themselves, but when the A-level results were published on 13 August it became clear that there were anomalies and injustices in the results that went beyond the anomalies we had been made aware of and for which we had put in place an enhanced appeal process. As I said earlier, swift action was taken to ensure that all young people got the just and fair results they deserve.

Adult Education: Unemployed People

We understand that ensuring adults can access the training they need is vitally important and more important than ever. Latest figures show that between August 2019 and April 2020 over 195,000 learners, out of a total of 1,624,000 further education learners over 19, benefited from support for the unemployed. We are supporting people by investing £1.34 billion in 2020-21 in adult education and we are investing £2.5 billion over the course of this Parliament in the National Skills Fund.

I thank the Minister for her response. The Centre for Ageing Better highlights the fact that the number of older workers on unemployment-related benefits more than doubled to over 600,000 in July. The Minister will know that the core adult education budget is still frozen in cash terms at last year’s amount. Those who are recently unemployed or redundant and who want to access training or retraining to upskill often cannot afford it, or risk losing universal credit if they do so. The Minister will not, I am sure, want that to sum up the Government’s approach to lifelong learning, so will she meet me, Ruskin College and West Thames College to hear about the issues we are facing in Hounslow, an aviation community, and to give people hope so that they, too, can have the opportunity to move on and get back into work?

We are, of course, absolutely committed to helping everybody who may find themselves looking for a job during this period through no fault of their own to have access to training at any age, at any stage. That is why the Chancellor set out his plan for jobs to give businesses confidence to retain, hire and get careers back on track. That includes £1.6 billion of scale-up employment training support and apprenticeships. We are investing in high-quality careers provision, incentivising employers to hire new apprentices, tripling the number of sector-based work academy placements and doubling the number of work coaches. We are also investing £2.5 billion, which will be available in April 2021. I am sure the colleges will be very much looking forward to that. We are working to make sure that everyone has access to training. I am, of course, very happy to meet colleges and will be very happy to do so with the hon. Lady.

Early Years Providers: Covid-19

What steps he is taking to ensure the financial stability of early years providers during the covid-19 outbreak. (905496)

The Government will fund local authorities for our free childcare entitlements for the rest of this calendar year at the pre-covid levels of attendance, even if fewer children are present, so early years providers will continue to benefit from the £3.6 billion investment in the provision this financial year. We have also announced supplementary funding of up to £23 million for maintained nursery schools, which often care for higher numbers of disadvantaged pupils, and will continue to work with local authorities to monitor the sector.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but last week research was published by the TUC showing that four out of 10 working mothers either did not have or could not rely on childcare to enable them to return to work. Of those, a quarter could not rely on having a nursery place. Given that there is already a £660 million gap in early years funding, what is the Minister doing to make sure that we do not see a further loss of early years providers in the coming months?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Childcare is vital for working parents, which is why this Government introduced the 30-hour entitlement and why we are investing £3.6 billion in early years this year. Breakfast and after-school clubs are also able to open and schools should be working to resume this provision from the start of this term. We have updated our guidance for providers. Any parent who may be struggling to find early years provision should contact their local authority, but I hope the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the funding for maintained nursery schools, including three in her constituency.[Official Report, 14 September 2020, Vol. 680, c. 2MC.]

School Finances: Covid-19

What recent discussions he has had with school leaders on providing financial support for costs incurred during the covid-19 outbreak. (905497)

Ministers and officials have been in regular contact with representatives of schools and academy trusts on all aspects of the Government’s covid response, including financial issues. Schools have been able to claim funds to meet certain additional costs and we are providing £1 billion in catch-up funding.

Schools in Newcastle went back this week and teachers have spent the summer working incredibly hard to make them covid secure while dealing with the exams debacle. Sacred Heart school in my constituency tells me that it has had to alter classrooms; it has bought visors, face masks and sanitisers; and it has had to increase cleaning rotas and produce online video guidance for every year group. This has cost tens of thousands of pounds, following years of budget cuts. The Minister cannot give them their summer back, but he can give them their money back. Will he do so?

I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the headteachers, teachers and other staff up and down the country who have worked tirelessly to get their schools ready to welcome back students in a safe way from this September. Schools have been able to claim for unavoidable costs incurred between March and July caused by the pandemic that cannot be met from the school’s existing resources—up to £75,000, depending on the size of the school. Core schools funding this year has risen by an additional £2.6 billion. That is part of a three-year settlement, which is the biggest funding boost in a decade. Although of course we keep these issues under review, our priority for additional funding has been to put the maximum possible into catch-up funding—some £1 billion—for schools to enable them to help young people to catch up on their lost education.

The Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is disappointing. It is extraordinary that back in July the Schools Minister told me that the Government did not consider it necessary for schools to make significant adaptations to their sites to enable them to welcome children back to school this autumn. That is not what headteachers are saying. They have told me that they are very concerned about the extra costs that schools are facing in relation to covid-19 for hand sanitisers, signage, barriers, cleaning and the support and teaching staff that they may need to cover covid-related absences. What steps will the Government take to ensure that all schools can be reimbursed for covid-related costs, and what would he say to those headteachers who are now openly saying that they are having to weigh up pupil safety against financial stability?

We have, as I said, announced a generous three-year settlement for schools. It is the best funding settlement in 10 years, with £14.4 billion over three years. Schools that are in financial difficulties can approach their local authority and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which will provide support for schools that are experiencing difficulties, including the deployment of school resource management advisers. Schools and academies have £4 billion of cumulative reserves, and we expect those to be used first, but we keep this issue under review, and our regional teams are constantly monitoring whether schools are struggling to provide the hygiene and all the other measures that schools are putting in place right across the country.

School Safety: Covid-19

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of (a) pupils and (b) staff in schools as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905498)

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of (a) pupils and (b) staff in schools as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (905499)

What steps he has taken to ensure that schools are safe for children as they return to the classroom following the covid-19 outbreak. (905515)

We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that all children and staff can be back in the classroom safely. Our guidance is clear: if schools implement the actions set out in the system of controls in that guidance, they will effectively reduce risks in their schools and create an inherently safer environment for all to operate in.

I want to place on record my thanks for the professionalism and efforts of all our teachers and senior leadership teams across the country, who have done such an amazing job over these weeks; I am sure that that is echoed across the Chamber. However, just in the last week after the start of term, we have had 46 cases in schools across the UK and 86 cases in Scotland. A total of 158 schools already have cases. In a Suffolk school—I think it is in the Health Secretary’s constituency—five teachers have tested positive, and the school has had to close. Is the Secretary of State confident that the Government have this under control?

Very much so. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the joint letter from the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland in which they pointed out that children are best served by being in school, but he is right to highlight the risks and challenges of children returning to school. That is why, at every stage, working right across the sector, we have put in place the strictest level of controls, and a system of controls, in order to create a safe environment for not just the children and those who work in schools, but the community as a whole.

Last week marked the long-awaited return to schools for many students and young people across Coventry North West. However, this was a time marked by anxiety for parents, students and teachers about what school would look like during the pandemic. I have had a number of constituents contact me about being cramped into small spaces and a lack of support for students with pre-existing medical conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting and responding badly to coronavirus. What allowances or provisions have the Government given schools to keep students with pre-existing medical conditions safe, and will they stop passing the buck to schools and make face coverings compulsory in communal areas in secondary schools?

At every stage—when we saw over 1.6 million children return to school before the summer holidays, and as we see the full return after the summer holidays—every precautionary measure that can be taken has been taken to ensure that the needs of children of all ages, including those who suffer disabilities, are properly catered for. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me about specific issues, I would be happy to look at them in detail.

Getting our children back to school is critical. It is vital that there is not just safety in school but safety and capacity within school transport. I know from talking to local family coach operators such as J&C Coaches in Newton Aycliffe that the environment for coach operators is particularly challenging. While the postponement of the implementation of the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations for school transport provides some relief, it is still a sword hanging over coach operators and their future viability. If a longer-term viable option is not signposted, this could result in their withdrawing from the market, reducing capacity when precisely the opposite is needed. The current approach drives excessive costs for coach operators and, by extension, local authorities. While I endorse the need for accessible transport, can the Department work to make this more fit for purpose for school transport?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue and highlighting the concerns of his constituents and coach operators in his constituency. Dealing with the issue of children getting to school as schools fully return has been important. That is why the Department for Transport made over £10 million available to build capacity in local authorities, and that is why we made over £40 million available to local authorities to provide extra transport. The issue that he raises has been a concern for many MPs, and as a Member of Parliament in Staffordshire, I know that it is one we have highlighted with the Department for Transport. The DFT’s decision to delay the implementation of these regulations was a positive move, but I will ask a Minister in that Department to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.

School Support: Increased Covid-19 Infection Areas

What steps his Department is taking to support schools in areas with an increase in covid-19 infection levels. (905500)

In local areas where restrictions have been implemented, we anticipate that schools will usually remain fully open to all. There may be exceptional circumstances in which some level of restriction of education or childcare is required in a local area. In those situations, local and national partners will carefully consider the most appropriate actions, with the aim of retaining as much face-to-face education as possible.

I presume that when the Secretary of State says “open to all”, he does not mean people who have tested positive for covid.

There is a great deal of confusion among children, parents and our wonderful school staff about what the arrangements are in the event of a local lockdown or an isolated outbreak, and of course that extends to what the arrangements are for home learning. Will the Secretary of State please tell us where is the guarantee that all children who have to study from home will have access to broadband? Where is the guarantee that all staff will have the capacity to deliver home learning? Will he tell us what happened to the laptops that were promised months ago to enable that to happen?

The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that we distributed more than 200,000 laptops, as well as more than 40,000 internet router connections, for children from the most disadvantaged communities. They went to local authorities and multi-academy trusts— [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “They never arrived.” I suggest that he takes that up with his local authority, to which they were sent directly.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the continuity of education. On 2 July, we outlined our expectations of what is required of schools in terms of the delivery of continuity of education. That is why we have made an investment in a further 150,000 laptops, which will be provided for communities that are not able to provide face-to-face teaching within schools. To be absolutely clear, schools will only ever be closed as an absolute last resort. We all understand, on both sides of this House, how important it is for children to be benefiting from being in school with their teachers and learning in the school environment.

Attainment Gap: Disadvantaged/Affluent Areas

What steps his Department is taking to close the attainment gap between students from disadvantaged and affluent areas. (905501)

What steps his Department is taking to close the attainment gap between students from disadvantaged and affluent areas. (905517)

In addition to the pupil premium, the £350 million national tutoring programme will provide affordable, high-quality tuition to disadvantaged pupils in schools and colleges. The catch-up premium provides a further £650 million to schools to make up for the lost teaching time of all pupils.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the recent data highlighting the learning gap between rich and poor secondary-age pupils demonstrated that the disparity is wider in Blackpool than in any other part of the country. I know the Government are determined to close the gap, so will he join me in calling for additional resources for schools in opportunity areas, such as Blackpool, that face particularly acute challenges?

It was a great pleasure to join my hon. Friend in visiting St George’s School in Blackpool South to see the amazing work being done there to raise educational attainment in his constituency. He is right to highlight the important role that opportunity areas can play. That is why we have already invested £6 million in the Blackpool opportunity area, and why it was a pleasure to announce, just a short time ago, that we are investing another almost £2 million in the Blackpool opportunity area, on top of all the extra investment we are making in terms of schools and the covid catch-up fund.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the key to tackling this issue is to start early? Will he commend the role of nursery schools in that provision, and can he find a way to give them a long-term sustainable funding settlement so that they can plan for the future?

My hon. Friend tempts me into a discussion that I shall probably have to have first with the Chancellor, but he is absolutely right to highlight the important role that early action and early support play in children’s lives. I was delighted to see that we will take action to invest in the Nuffield early language interventions, which have already shown that they can deliver so much for youngsters. Building on that into the future is an important part of the work that the Department is doing with our schools and so much more.

Missed Education: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to help children and young people catch up on the education they missed during the previous school year as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (905502)

What steps his Department is taking to help children and young people catch up on the education they missed during the previous school year as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (905513)

The Government have announced a catch-up package worth £1 billion, including a catch-up premium worth a total of £650 million, to support schools to make up for lost teaching time. That is in addition to the national tutoring programme, which is targeted at those children who are most disadvantaged in all our constituencies.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There has been huge variation in the amount of school missed, often caused by the amount of online learning available and the capacity to access it. The amount of catch-up needed is therefore individual and diverse, and that is challenging for both families and teachers. How is my right hon. Friend supporting schools in their assessment of individual need and their response to it?

I very much point to the work of the Education Endowment Foundation, which we issued with our guidance. It has undertaken evidence-based work to ensure that, while schools will make the assessment of the individual needs of children and what help and intervention can be put in place for them, there is clear guidance on what works in the classroom environment. That might mean extending the school day for some; it might mean Saturday classes for others. There are so many different interventions that can deliver significant results in terms of helping youngsters catch up on the learning they have lost.

My local authority, South Gloucestershire Council, was the first in the country to implement a recovery curriculum to support schools, working with experts from a range of fields and taking in international examples to get children back into the classroom. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating South Gloucestershire Council and all the teachers on their hard work to provide vital support for local pupils, and encourage his Department and other local authorities to consider this model as potential best practice?

I very much join my right hon. Friend in congratulating South Gloucestershire Council on the work that it has been doing and rolling out across schools in its area. I would be delighted to look at that work and maybe to meet my right hon. Friend and colleagues from South Gloucestershire Council to understand some of the work that has been undertaken and what we can use from that to roll out in different parts of the country.

Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to support children with special educational needs and disabilities in returning to school as covid-19 restrictions are eased. (905504)

The pandemic has been challenging for all families, but it has been particularly challenging for children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. We have published a range of guidance to support children, families, carers and educational settings, and I wrote an open letter to all children and those who support them last week. We are increasing high-needs funding by £730 million next year on top of this year’s £780 million, which is an increase of nearly a quarter over the two years, and providing additional catch-up support on top of that.

Special schools for physically disabled children, such as the superb Pace centre in my constituency, have faced especial challenges over the past few months. How will my hon. Friend ensure that, as term gets under way, they receive advice and support that is tailored to the specific physical needs and circumstances of their pupils and the wider circumstances of their families, so that all children, whether they are disabled or non-disabled, can benefit from a full and varied education?

I thank all the staff at Pace and special schools across the country for all that they do. We have worked with the sector to provide detailed guidance, which we continually update as needed, and we will continue to do so. Those who need tailored support will be glad to hear that specialist therapists, clinicians and other support staff can attend school sites and provide those interventions as usual. In terms of our £1 billion of catch-up funding, there will be three times more going into special schools than into mainstream schools.

Many children with special educational needs and disabilities will find their return to school after a prolonged period of absence extremely challenging. The Children’s Commissioner for England has warned that Government guidance on school exclusion could encourage a zero-tolerance approach to challenging behaviour that may result in children with SEND who are struggling to readjust being excluded in large numbers. Can the Minister reassure me that she will not allow this to happen, and will she commit herself to reporting to the House the number of children with SEND being excluded from school as the term progresses?

Permanent exclusion should only ever be used as a last resort and must be lawful, reasonable and fair, and that is why we have already asked all schools to be understanding of the needs of all children and young people, including those with SEND, especially as they return. That is exactly the point I covered in my open letter last week to all children with SEND and their families. Off-rolling is never acceptable, and it will be monitored by Ofsted.

Topical Questions

Since last week, schools across the country have begun welcoming children back into the classroom with a range of protective measures in place. I thank all teachers, support staff and the whole school community for making it such a positive and pleasurable experience for all children.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what support his Department is giving to universities and schools to help them recruit foreign students?

A great and important strength of our university sector has always been its ability to attract students from across the globe, and we have been working with Universities UK and all universities to ensure they are properly supported. We are supporting them with a campaign to attract more students to the UK and working across Government to make sure that students applying for visas can do so with ease. The Home Office has been incredibly supportive in ensuring that for those who want to come and study here it has been a positive experience.

Last month, the Prime Minister ordered parents back to work, and while it may not have occurred to the Prime Minister, I want to draw the Secretary of State’s attention specifically to their need for wraparound care at the start and end of the school day, where parents tell me there remains a gaping hole. Can he set out precisely what he is doing to ensure that working parents’ need for wraparound care will be met?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the importance of wraparound care. We are working with all schools to ensure it is provided to parents. We have issued guidance setting out how this can be done safely and cautiously and in a way that works for those who work in schools and, importantly, for the children who benefit from this wraparound care as well as the parents who depend on it.

Devastatingly, the return of students to Uppingham Community College has been delayed by a fire that seriously damaged the school buildings just as it planned to open. Nearby Casterton College is also in desperate need of investment, but because many students do not live in Rutland, funding does not automatically go to the local authority. What funding is available to help both those schools? (905600)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important case in her constituency. Uppingham Community College is actually covered by risk protection arrangements, and I know that officials in my Department are working closely with it to see what is needed in order to ensure that there is provision. I know that Baroness Berridge would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss in more detail some of the particular issues that she faces in Rutland and how we can best support her and, most importantly, the provision of education in her constituency.

In Scotland, there is provision for the youngest children in the year group, including those born prematurely, to defer their school start. Some of them will fall into the wrong group because of their early birth, and I cannot believe that there is less flexibility for that in England. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet a delegation from the all-party parliamentary group on premature and sick babies to look at how we can support those families going forward? (905604)

I would be more than happy to meet with such a delegation, and I know from my own experience of having a child who arrived prematurely some of the challenges that can come about. I would be very interested to listen and to see what more can be done to provide support in the future.

I pay full tribute to all the schools in my constituency that have reopened on time and in full. As the Secretary of State will no doubt be aware, this is against a background of record investment, which, of course, came into play in April. He will also know that this was mooted as but tranche 1 of a two-tranche funding settlement, so can he give us a reassurance this afternoon that the further investment will be introduced on time in the next financial year? (905601)

I know that, as a former teacher, my hon. Friend was itching to get back into the classroom if there was a need for extra teaching support. He was ready, willing and most certainly able to do so had the call come. He will probably have seen that schools in his constituency are receiving a more than £47 million cash increase, which will be followed in the next financial year by a substantial cash increase, and then in the third financial year there will also be a substantial cash increase. Schools were one of the few areas—if not the only area—that were able to get a three-year deal, and I believe this will have a real impact in helping them plan for the future delivery of the best education.

T6. Let me say that I am also a former teacher, as the Secretary of State is raising the issue. Has he heard any reports from schools about making face masks part of school uniform, including school uniform requirements about the type of face masks that are worn? While it is acceptable to require nothing inappropriate, surely it is unacceptable to require a safety measure such as this to be part of uniform. (905605)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his offer to step in for any supply needs schools may have, but he raises a very important point. I would be happy, if it is possible, for him to meet the Minister for School Standards if he has particular details or concerns so that we can take them up. I am not aware of the situation that he outlines, but it is important to keep an eye on all this. We have been very clear in the guidance that we have issued to schools, and we need to ensure that that guidance is properly considered by all schools but that people do not develop it in ways in which it should not be developed.

During the course of the pandemic, we have seen an increase in people experiencing poor mental health and anxiety, and a new report from SAGE has warned of the serious implications of worsening mental health among students if education continues to be disrupted and universities do not fully open. Can the Minister reassure students and their families that universities are safe to open on the basis of blended learning, and confirm that clear strategies and additional support will be in place to support the mental health of students when they return to university? That is most important to our young people embarking on their further education. (905602)

My right hon. Friend raises the important point of young people’s mental health and the benefits they get from going to back to school, college or university. We have worked incredibly closely with not just the school sectors but the university sector to ensure that that return is done in a safe, cautious and planned way, and I give thanks for all the work done in the higher education sector. We do recognise that covid has presented some quite challenging mental health problems to many young people as well as staff, which is why we announced a £9 million fund for additional enhanced mental health work to support those who work in and those who benefit from being in the education sector, students included.

On 2 July, I asked the Secretary of State if he would write to me to confirm what extra practical support was being provided to disabled pupils, such as laptops and other assistive technology. As yet, I have not received a response. Will he please update the House now, or at least let me know when I might receive the promised letter? (905608)

I will certainly go back to the Department and immediately check why the hon. Member has not received that letter. I can only apologise for its not arriving.

Speaking with many individuals across Keighley and Ilkley who have—or are involved with people with—dyslexia, dyspraxia or other special educational needs, I hear the message that while support provision is often good, it is often uneven across schools. What additional support can my right hon. Friend provide to ensure high-quality provision across all schools in West Yorkshire and the rest of the country? (905603)

We have funded the National Association for Special Educational Needs on behalf of the Whole School SEND Consortium to work to recruit teachers to deliver high-quality teaching across all types of special educational needs, and that support is available to all schools. We also funded targeted support, focused on particular areas of concern flagged by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. We are putting £730 million into high needs next year, coming on top of £780 million of additional funding this year, which means that high- needs funding has increased by 24% in just two years.

Young people’s futures cannot be put on hold because of Tory incompetence. With schools now returning, many parents in Slough, particularly those who have been shielding and those living in multigenerational households or who have children with special educational needs or disabilities, remain concerned about sending their children back to school. Given that the Government have failed to put in place the necessary SEND support and have not provided enough reassurance for parents regarding safety, how does the Secretary of State intend to ensure that all children can get back to school safely? (905612)

We do want all children to return to school, and to return to school safely, including children with special educational needs and disability. We have given guidance to schools, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), has written an open letter to parents of children with special educational needs about returning. Where there are families who have particular concerns about the safety of returning, the advice we give is to talk to the headteacher, who hopefully will be able to provide them with reassurance.

St Austell is the largest town in Cornwall and has some of the most deprived communities. Further education provision in the town is vital to our young people’s life chances. Cornwall College is seeking to secure high-quality further education facilities in St Austell by redeveloping its St Austell campus. Will the Secretary of State commit himself to working with me and the college to bring forward the redevelopment as soon as possible? (905606)

Maybe in anticipation of the question, Cornwall College has already been a beneficiary of £1.4 million of extra money heading towards it as a result of our commitment to putting more money into further education in respect of capital build. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the college to discuss further their plans for St Austell and to hear about how they want to transform educational outcomes for those not just in St Austell, but more widely in Cornwall.

The Prime Minister talked of a “mutant algorithm” and the Secretary of State disclaimed all knowledge of its decisions as if it were some kind of educational horoscope. Will he confirm for us today that he recognises that algorithms are neither biology nor astrology but complex data manipulation tools, which do what they are told to do, which cannot predict the performance of individuals, and which require a robust regulatory framework before being used in the public or private sector? (905614)

I very much agree with the fact that there needs to be a robust regulatory framework around any use of algorithms. Algorithms are used every single year in the management of grade boundaries as youngsters are awarded both GCSEs and A-levels. That has always been the case and will always be the case.

I have written to my hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for further education about West Nottinghamshire College and how Education and Skills Funding Agency restrictions are limiting how it can support progress in my community. Will the Secretary of State commit to working with me to help the college find a way to navigate these barriers and fulfil its potential in delivering the best possible FE for our community in Mansfield? (905609)

It has been incredibly impressive to see the turnaround at West Nottinghamshire College and the work that has already been undertaken. I would be more than happy to work with my hon. Friend to see what opportunities can be created in the future for this college, which has had some difficult times, but is very much looking to the future with optimism and with a real sense of purpose in delivering the very best for young people in his constituency.

As I hope the Secretary of State already knows, there are about 20,000 private or home-schooled students who would normally have taken A-level, AS-level and GCSE exams this summer. These students were excluded from the U-turn on the assessment algorithm last month and are therefore still being penalised by this Government’s arbitrary and discriminatory policies. Will he now agree properly to engage with this issue and meet me to discuss how this situation can be rectified so that no young person is left behind? (905616)

I am very happy to meet the hon. Member. This was an issue that we discussed at great length with the regulator. We wanted to find a way in which those students could be awarded grades, notwithstanding the fact that the summer series had to be cancelled. However, for some students who do not have a relationship with a school, it was not possible to have centre-assessed grades. That is one of the reasons why we put on an autumn series of exams in all subjects across GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels to ensure that they have the opportunity to take their exams this year.

The return to school is particularly challenging for those young people who are hard of hearing. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Bungay High School, which has just opened a new specialist facility for students with hearing loss, and will he update one of those students, Daniel Jillings, whom he has met, on the development of the British Sign Language GCSE and assure him that it will not be delayed? (905610)

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Bungay High School on its new specialist facility, and I pay tribute to him for his passion and his support for a GCSE in British Sign Language. I do remember meeting Daniel Jillings and his mother who made a compelling case. As this is a brand new subject at GCSE, we have been taking care to consult experts very closely on the detail of the subject content. The covid pandemic has affected the timeline for developing the GCSE, but my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that that work has now been resumed.

In order 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.