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Topical Questions

Volume 679: debated on Monday 7 September 2020

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.