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Topical Questions

Volume 684: debated on Monday 23 November 2020

Last week I announced the Department’s intention to explore a post-qualification admissions system for higher education where by students would receive and accept offers after they have received their A-level or equivalent grades. As set out in our manifesto, we are committed to levelling up our education system so that everyone with the ability to benefit from higher education can do so, regardless of their background. This is a fairer system that we are moving towards, especially for those youngsters from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. The Government will consult universities, colleges, schools, students, and, of course, devolved Administrations to understand how a PQA system can best be delivered in the interests of all students.

We all want to see things returning to normal, but I note from the two local education authorities in my constituency that so many staff and pupils are off at any one time because of covid transmission and self-isolation. Given that this is likely to be the situation going into the new year, does the Secretary of State really expect routine Ofsted inspections to begin in January, and if so, how is that going to work for schools affected by covid?

The hon. Member highlights an important issue about the fact that so many people right across the teaching profession and support staff are putting in so much effort to ensure that all our children get the benefit of a world-class education. We all know—especially Government Members, and many Opposition Members—the importance of keeping schools open and welcoming children into the classroom. We will continue to work with Ofsted so that our approach ensures that we have high standards and that the safeguarding measures that are properly in place remain in place, but always having proper regard for the good functioning of all schools and making sure that we do not get in the way or create barriers or obstacles to schools properly functioning.

What discussions has the Education Department had with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations about students returning home for Christmas when they have studied in a different nation of the United Kingdom from where they call home? (909122)

My hon. Friend raises a vitally important point, because students right across the United Kingdom see it as one higher education system and are choosing the best universities for themselves, with many English students studying in Scotland and vice versa, and many Northern Irish and Welsh students studying in all the other three nations. It is absolutely important that we have a consistent approach. We have been working very closely with the DAs. This does show the strength of our higher education system as a Union system and how all universities working together in the United Kingdom strengthens all universities in all four nations.

University students have been an afterthought in the Government’s thinking throughout the covid crisis, whether that is the A-level fiasco, the huge spike in cases after return in September, financial hardship, mental health or digital access. All have been palmed off to universities with only slow, token Government support, and now time is again running out. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to get ahead of events and publish clear, crisp and quick guidance for universities, so that they can plan for a safe and smooth student return in the new year?

Following the end-of-term break, our top priority is January, and we will be ensuring that the welfare of students, staff and communities in higher education providers is at the forefront. We will look to utilise mass testing to make the return of higher education as safe as possible, and we will indeed produce further and comprehensive guidance.

Improving skills is critical for addressing disparities in regional productivity. Can my right hon. Friend commit himself to supporting local Lincolnshire colleges such as Stamford College and Grantham College in that endeavour? (909124)

Both Stamford College and Grantham College are great examples of brilliant further education provision, and I want to see more and more further education colleges coming to the fore, making sure that the skills revolution that this side of the House is absolutely committed to delivering is delivered, because far too often our attention and focus has been on higher education. We know that our further education colleges can be a real driver of productivity, skills, jobs and opportunity in local areas, including in Grantham and Stamford.

Order. It might help the Secretary of State if I say that I am actually over here, which is where he should address his remarks.

With the end of the transition period fast approaching, the Home Secretary’s toxic immigration environment gives our universities little comfort, so how is the Secretary of State countering the Home Secretary’s damaging rhetoric? What discussions has he had with the Home Secretary and the higher education sector about the importance of our international staff and students?

I thank my colleagues in the Home Office, who have worked so closely with Universities UK and universities right across all four nations to make sure that visa applications have gone smoothly. Despite the concerns and worries that many people voiced earlier this year that international students would not turn up, actually international students have been turning up, and I pay tribute to the cross-Government work that has been going on. What a powerful brand the United Kingdom has around the world, demonstrating that universities not just in England, but also in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, benefit from being part of the Union.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the staff at Keele University for all they have done to support students, those who have been ill with covid and those who have been self-isolating? Secondly, will he set out what measures his Department is taking to ensure that those students can get home safely for Christmas? (909125)

I thank my hon. Friend, who has done so much to highlight the concerns and issues—not just of the University of Keele, but also of students whom he represents—and flag them up to the Department. We have worked very closely with the university sector, and it would be right for me to pay tribute to the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), who has done so much to ensure that all students will be able to return home for Christmas in an orderly and safe manner.

Scottish universities receive an average of 8% of their total research funding from the European Union, with the majority coming from Horizon 2020, so can the Secretary of State tell us whether participation in Horizon Europe is still on the table? If not, how should our universities be looking to replicate that funding? (909120)

Our universities are world leading when it comes to research, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy recently published a road map. This is a priority for the Government. As the hon. Member will know, Horizon is being actively negotiated with the EU, and that Department has publicly said that it is preparing an alternative, should we not be successful in those negotiations.

The town of Radcliffe in my constituency has a population of roughly 30,000, but for many years it has not had a high school. A new school would not only improve educational attainment for the town’s children but kick-start the town’s regeneration. As the bidding process is now in its final stages, will my right hon. Friend help me by supporting my campaign, alongside the people of Radcliffe, for the new school that the town desperately needs? (909126)

Even before he was elected to this House, my hon. Friend was campaigning to ensure that the people of Radcliffe and their children have a high school for their town. I know how passionately he feels about that; he has had a petition highlighting the issue and numerous meetings with me. We are still in the final phases of allocating round 14 of free schools, but his passionate campaigning has been noted, and I am sure we will all work to ensure that his constituents get the best educational attainment possible.

It is well known that working-class boys and young men are severely disadvantaged in the education system, but I wonder whether the House is aware of the recent Sutton Trust report, which showed that the situation has become deeply entrenched during the Government’s mishandling of the covid crisis. It is the job of the Department for Education to promote social mobility, yet the report predicts that working-class young men and boys will be 7.5% less mobile, with £4,000 less in lifetime earnings. Either the Government are incompetent or they simply do not care about the entrenchment of privilege and poverty—which is it? (909121)

The hon. Gentleman will know that everything we have been doing since 2010 is about closing that attainment gap, and we have closed it by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools. We know that the impact of the covid pandemic has been devastating across all sections of society, but particularly for disadvantaged pupils. That is why we have implemented a £1 billion catch-up fund. We are determined that no young person will suffer in the long term as a consequence of interruption to their education caused by the pandemic.

CAPA College specialises in creative and performing arts. It educates, nurtures and inspires the next generation of performers and creative entrepreneurs, while being the highest-performing free school in the country, with 100% A to C post-16 results—and all this from temporary accommodation. Its new permanent home is scheduled to open in September. However, the current DFE budget does not cover the specialist technology and equipment required. I have raised this with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who has committed to look at whether funding is available from his budget. Will my right hon. Friend look into CAPA’s situation and work with me and DCMS to raise the additional £800,000 required, to ensure that my young constituents, regardless of background, find pathways to opportunity? (909127)

We all recognise the important role of the creative industries in driving the economy and the importance of having the right skills and training for young people who want to go into that industry. I would be more than happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the challenges he faces in his constituency and how we can best assist.

As a trade union official, I saw union learning centres embedded in workplaces meeting the needs of employers and employees and often providing the only continuing education and training for those working people. Union learning works, so why on earth do the Government want to abolish it? [R] (909123)

We are investing in skills right across the country through the lifetime skills guarantee, which gives a sense of opportunity to so many people who have never had it before. We want to invest the £12 million in our colleges up and down the country, to ensure that they have a real impact in our local communities. Unionlearn was costing £4 million in admin alone. That money is better spent on delivering skills for not only young people but people of all ages.

At least one school in my constituency is suffering material numbers of pupil absences because the NHS covid app is triggering through walls. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the policy is that under-16s should not be using the app, and will he undertake to reissue guidance to schools across the country, to ensure that we get the most out of keeping schools open? (909128)

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that under-16s should not be using that app. I would like to thank schools and the leadership of schools, which have done so much in working with Test and Trace to ensure that the number of youngsters who need to self-isolate as a result of a case has been reduced significantly over the past few weeks, making sure that as many children as possible are attending school. I will take up the point my hon. Friend has made and look at guidance on how best we can give people the right and proper steer.

At a time when LGBT+ hate crime is on the rise, it is extremely disappointing that the Government have cut the funding to support education about LGBT+ bullying in schools. Can the Minister assure me that an alternative will be put forward so that this vital training can continue to educate our young people in preventing bullying and achieving better mental health? (909130)

This was the Government Equalities Office scheme to support a number of anti-LGBT bullying schemes. I have seen these schemes in action myself, and they are very good indeed. We will be looking at what more the DFE can do after the spending review to ensure that our anti-bullying programmes are LGBT-inclusive.

Before we had even heard the dreaded word “covid”, the excellent headteacher Rob Williams at Malton School had put in place a scheme to provide an iPad to all children, and completely free to children accessing the pupil premium. Would my right hon. Friend agree that this should be a national exemplar and rolled out as best practice to other schools around the country? (909129)

As a Yorkshireman myself, I would agree that many exemplars come out of Yorkshire. The EdTech demonstrators the Department has been rolling out are a brilliant example, and I think that what Malton School has been doing really shows how we can best use technology to support pupils, including pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

Our teachers and school staff are doing a fantastic job right now; they are very much on the frontline during the covid pandemic. Could I therefore ask the Secretary of State whether they could be treated as a priority when it comes to vaccination; and if he is in agreement with that suggestion, will he share his methodology and the way he will approach my suggestions with the Scottish Government, because the issue is exactly the same north of the border? (909131)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about vaccines. We are working very closely across Government to ensure that those people who have the greatest clinical need get the vaccine. He highlights a really important issue, and he would not be surprised to hear that, as Secretary of State for Education, I always see education as the absolute priority, but I would be very happy to work with the devolved Administrations to make sure that we have as combined and co-ordinated an approach as possible, which is really the greatest strength of our Union.

Many schools in West Worcestershire have benefited from the condition improvement fund, but Malvern Parish Primary School, with its leaky, draughty Victorian windows, keeps missing out. Would the Secretary of State kindly look again at its bid? (909133)

I have some good news: on 14 January —after Christmas—there will be an opportunity for such schools to apply for the next round of condition improvement funding. There is more money in this pot than ever before because we are spending more money on the improvement of our schools. Of course, I would always be happy to sit down with my hon. Friend and discuss her educational priorities, including for the schools in her constituency.[Official Report, 24 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 6MC.]

I have received numerous emails from concerned parents and students about whether or not schools are going to remain open or closed during this lockdown. Some parents and students are incredibly frightened about the risk of educational institutions becoming a ground zero site for new spikes of infection and, on other side of the debate, others are worried that children and young people will miss out on key learning if schools are shut. Many of my constituents’ concerns on both sides of the debate may well be put to rest if testing in schools occurred more frequently for students and staff. Could the Secretary of State please let us know what steps he is taking to ensure that schools have increased access to testing and that staff are in a safer working environment during the pandemic? (909134)

We know how important it is to give children the opportunity to be in school, and that is why the Government prioritise school opening. We had more than 1.6 million children back in school before the summer holidays. We opened the door to all our schools right across the country to welcome children back, and it is great to see that 99% of schools are open. We continue to take the safety and security of not just pupils but staff incredibly seriously. That is why, at every stage of the way, we will do everything to ensure schools remain a safe environment. As the chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Children’s Commissioner for England said, children are best in school. That is why—

Thank you for squeezing me in, Mr Speaker.

It was absolutely right for the Government to keep schools open through the tiered system and lockdown, despite the pressure on my right hon. Friend from some of the unions and various others. One of the things that many teachers in my area have complained about is the patchiness of some of the advice in its application: whole school groups—sometimes whole year groups—are going down because of the fear of infection. Would my right hon. Friend or the Schools Minister be prepared to deal with the guidance again and possibly participate in an online roundtable with my local teachers, who are very keen to speak to them?

I absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that the Schools Minister would love to do that with his teachers, and is enthusiastically penning in the date. My right hon. Friend is right that there have been some inconsistencies. That is why we set up the national helpline to ensure there is consistency of advice, and are working with schools groups and schools trusts to support them to ensure there is a common approach. We know that getting children into schools, where they have the benefit of education and learning, will give them the best opportunities, and that is why it continues to remain our focus.

Last month, during National Adoption Week, it was announced that more than 600 children were still waiting to be placed with their forever families. I know that my right hon. Friend has since launched a national recruitment campaign, but could he say what progress is being made, despite the challenges of covid, and what plans he has to ensure that those children are placed with their forever families as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend and I share a common passion about the importance of adoption. We want to drive up the rate of adoption right across the country. There have been delays in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, which have meant that a number of adoptions have been held up. I am meeting my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Justice to see what more we can do to speed up that process and give children the opportunity to be with a family forever. There is nothing more generous that people can do than open up not just their homes but their hearts to ensure that those young people have the opportunities that we all want them to have.

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 a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.