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Volume 684: debated on Monday 23 November 2020

The Secretary of State was asked—

Schools: Safe Opening and Covid-19

To support schools to open fully from the autumn, we published guidance in July and updated it as necessary. Schools have access to an advice service and supply of test kits. By assessing risk and maximising the use of Public Health England-endorsed control measures, schools reduce risk for pupils and staff.

Schools are facing huge budget pressures as costs escalate for increased supply cover as teachers self-isolate and from unfunded covid-19 cleaning costs. More than a quarter of all state schools are using reserve budgets to ensure that pupils have devices and access to the internet to study while isolating at home. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that schools will get the funding they need to cover these unforeseen costs?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important point. We know how important it is. We already outlined a package for the summer term, and tens of millions of pounds have been distributed to schools. We have kept this matter under review and will update the House in the near future.

Can the Secretary of State say how many pupils have been sent home from school for covid-related reasons since the start of this term, and of those, how many have been sent home on more than one occasion?

The hon. Lady raises an important point about the number of pupils being sent home. We keep a close monitor of those children who are sent home and we are working with the sector, so we can send that detail and on to her.

I am disappointed that the Secretary of State does not know those figures. Parents, pupils and teachers have told me of students having been sent home three, four, even five times; some have missed up to one third of their time in school. I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that that will have a disastrous impact on their learning. As we have heard, promised help with laptops and additional costs has not always arrived. School leaders and staff are stressed and exhausted. I support him in wanting pupils to be safely in school, but please will he tell our dedicated and desperate teachers, heads and support staff what he is going to do to support them and keep children learning?

At every stage, we on the Government side of the House have championed the importance of schools and getting children back into schools. We have done everything we can to support schools to welcome children back. We have done everything we can in terms of the over half a million laptops that are going to be distributed, and are being distributed, to schools to support remote learning. We recognise that children have lost out as a result of this covid pandemic. That is why the Government pledged £1 billion-worth of support to schools to help them catch up that lost learning.

School Admissions Code: Summer-born Children

What progress his Department has made on further amending the school admissions code to ensure that summer-born and premature children can be admitted to reception at the age of five at the request of parents. (909060)

The Department published updated guidance in September 2020 on the admission of summer-born children. The guidance will help to ensure that decisions are taken in the best interests of the child concerned. It remains our intention to legislate to change the school admissions code when an opportunity is available.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I agree with him that legislating would ensure that all summer-born children have the opportunity and the life outcome they deserve. Will he agree to meet me and perhaps a member of the Treasury so that we can ensure that that legislation comes through in this Parliament?

May I first pay tribute to my hon. Friend for highlighting the important issue of summer-born children? Of course, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the legislation that we need to put through to ensure that his and others’ strong opinions about fairness for summer-born children are implemented.

Childcare Provision

We have made an unprecedented investment in childcare of £3.6 billion this year. Childcare settings have been prioritised for reopening, childcare bubbles have reduced pressure on working parents, and from next Easter, disadvantaged children will be able to take part in our holiday activities and food programmes all across the country.[Official Report, 24 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 5MC.]

The Minister will know of my enthusiasm for campaigning for another outstanding secondary school in Wolverhampton. Will she work with me to see that that comes to fruition and that we get another outstanding secondary school in Wolverhampton?

My hon. Friend shares our passion for making sure that we improve education in Wolverhampton and all across the country. He has been championing that non-stop, lobbying my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The free schools programme has created thousands of high-quality school places. Three secondary applications have been received from my hon. Friend’s constituency, and we hope to make a decision later this year.

Self-isolating Children: Online Education

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that children self-isolating during the covid-19 outbreak receive high-quality online education. (909062)

We are clear that schools have a duty to provide remote education for state-funded children who are unable to attend school due to coronavirus. I gave a direction that placed a legal duty to provide remote education in those circumstances. That has been in effect since 22 October 2020.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Many teachers are also having to self-isolate. For those who are healthy, are we ensuring that they are able to assist with online learning?

We very much are, and we are encouraging schools with teachers who are not in a position to be in the classroom, to ensure and support online learning straight into children’s homes. It is absolutely vital we do so. As we see more and more testing becoming available, we can release staff so they can be back in the classroom supporting the amazing work that is already going on there.

Let us head to the Secretary of State for Education, Robert Halfon—not the Secretary of State, the Chair of the Select Committee on Education. [Laughter.] The next promotion!

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. We have a good Secretary of State already.

Last week, The Sunday Times reported that a record 600,000 children were absent from class for to covid-related reasons. We know that around the country sending pupils home has, sadly, become more commonplace. It is right for exams in some form or another to take place next year, but will my right hon. Friend set out the measures he is taking to ensure there is an absolutely level playing field for those left behind during the coronavirus outbreak, as well as those who are sent home to self-isolate, so they have as fair a chance as possible in their exams as every other pupil?

What all the evidence points to is that exams are the best and fairest way to ensure that children, especially children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds and children from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, get the best possible grades. What is so important is that we deliver fairness for all youngsters right across the board. We have already announced a package of measures to push back the date when exams will take place, so that people can catch up on lost learning. We have also announced a £1 billion package to support schools to deliver extra assistance for those youngsters. We will announce further measures to ensure absolute fairness in our exam system, so that young people have the best opportunity to prove themselves when they have the opportunity to take their exams.

National Funding Formula

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that schools receive equitable levels of funding under the national funding formula. (909063)

The national funding formula distributes funding based on school and pupil characteristics. Despite budget pressures due to covid, we have increased funding for the lowest-funded schools to ensure every school has the resources it needs to deliver an outstanding education, with at least £5,150 per pupil next year for all secondary schools and £4,000 per pupil for primary schools.

The headmaster of Caistor Grammar School has contacted me. This school produces, for kids from all sorts of backgrounds, some of the best results in the east midlands, but its buildings are in a shocking state. He has been refused a condition improvement grant, despite the fact that he has temporary and mobile classrooms that are classed by the Secretary of State’s Department as grade A. Will the Secretary of State assure me that, in his national funding formula negotiations, there is no discrimination against grammar schools? I often find that, while the education is wonderful, the buildings are peeling.

I can absolutely assure my right hon. Friend that there will be no discrimination shown against grammar schools. I encourage him to be in contact with the school as the next round of condition improvement funding is due in January next year. I very much encourage that school, as well as other schools in his constituency, to apply. That gives me the opportunity to highlight the fact that we are spending more on the condition and improvement of our schools, with an extra half a billion pounds allocated to support schools and their rebuilding.[Official Report, 24 November 2020, Vol. 684, c. 6MC.]

Home Learning: IT Provision

What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils have laptops and internet access when required to learn from home. (909064)

What steps he is taking to ensure that all pupils have laptops and internet access when required to learn from home. (909096)

We are making over half a million laptops and tablets available for disadvantaged students across the country by the end of the year. Since September, over 100,000 devices have been delivered to schools, building on over 220,000 delivered in the summer term. Where children lack access to the internet at home, we have also delivered over 50,000 routers.

Knowsley is one of the most deprived boroughs in the country and has had its allocation of laptops cut from 1,065 to 282 since the Government’s 80% cut in allocations. Fifty-six of the 61 schools in Knowsley have at least one bubble self-isolating, and one primary school in Halewood in my constituency which currently has 60 children self-isolating has been allocated six laptops. Half the children in that school have no access to technology at home, so how exactly are headteachers meant to comply with the Government’s regulation that schools must provide immediate access to high-quality remote learning for pupils who are self-isolating?

Any school where pupils are self-isolating, and which has disadvantaged students who do not have access to a computer, is able to contact the Department to acquire extra computers beyond those allocated. I am told that it takes 48 working hours to have those laptops delivered to the school. In the context of significant global demand for laptops and tablets, we have updated the process of allocating those devices to schools to align more accurately with the number of students typically self-isolating. That will help to ensure that those who are self-isolating and need a laptop or a tablet are able to receive one.

Teachers in Coventry South have stressed to me the importance of pupils having access to computers at home, but many children from working-class communities do not have that. One school in my constituency, Ernesford Grange Community Academy, found that 12% of students—101 pupils—struggle to access a device at home. The Government introduced a new duty on schools to provide online learning, but the next day they slashed the allocation of laptops. Ernesford Grange saw its allocation fall from 111 to just 22, so will the Minister today guarantee that every school in Coventry has the laptops that their students need?

The allocation is to schools that are not necessarily sending children home to self-isolate—that is, to all schools, whether or not their pupils are self-isolating. We need to make sure that there is a computer—a laptop—for every disadvantaged pupil who does not have one and who is self-isolating, and because we made that decision, we are able to ensure that every pupil in those circumstances will receive a computer. All they have to do is phone the Department for Education, and they will have the computer, if they fulfil the eligibility criteria, within 48 hours of putting in that call.

Exams and Assessments 2021: Covid-19

What steps he is taking to ensure that equal treatment is applied to all pupils undertaking exams and assessments in 2021 in response to variations in physical attendance at schools as a result of covid-19 outbreak. (909065)

What steps he is taking to ensure the (a) effective and (b) accessible operation of GCSE and A-level exams in 2021. (909066)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the capability of schools and colleges to hold (a) A-level and (b) GCSE exams at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. (909072)

What steps his Department is taking in response to the covid-19 outbreak to ensure that (a) GCSE and (b) A-level exams can take place in 2021. (909075)

What steps his Department is taking in response to the covid-19 outbreak to ensure that (a) GCSE and (b) A-level exams can take place in 2021. (909076)

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of deferring GCSE and A-level examinations in 2021; and if he will make a statement. (909080)

What steps he is taking to ensure the (a) effective and (b) accessible operation of GCSE and A-level exams in 2021. (909093)

We are working with Ofqual and engaging widely with the education sector to identify risks to examinations at a national, local and individual level and to consider the measures needed to address any potential disruption. That could be a student unable to sit examinations or schools affected by a local outbreak. More details will be published shortly.

GCSEs and A-levels are two-year courses. Most students have missed six months of in-school teaching for these courses. Ofsted has concluded that that has impacted on the disadvantaged the most, and significantly, in the three months since school has started, some students have missed even more, with high pupil and staff absences reflecting the high infection rates. That is particularly the case for the disadvantaged, those in the north and BME communities. How can any form of traditional exams take place on a level playing field, particularly for poorer kids in the north? Will the Minister be happy that the huge attainment gap that follows will be his personal legacy?

Our No. 1 priority is to make sure that we help young people catch up on their lost education. That is why we have allocated £1 billion to schools—the catch-up premium—to help students catch up and, of that, £350 million is allocated to disadvantaged pupils. We have delayed this summer’s exams—GCSEs and A-levels—by three weeks to free up teaching time. Ofqual consulted in the summer on changes to assessment on issues such as science practicals, field trips, spoken language and optionality in history and English literature, again to help reduce pressure on teaching times. We will shortly announce other measures to help to ensure that exams are fair, including the approach to grading to ensure that the 2021 cohort is treated fairly compared with previous years’ students.

Secondary heads in my constituency told me last month that it was already too late to plan properly for even the delayed GCSEs and A-levels next summer, and they are still waiting. If the Republic of Ireland Government could give students and teachers a clear road map for summer 2021 back in August, and a plan B that went along with it if the situation changed, why can this Government not do the same and give students in years 11, 12 and 13 a fighting chance?

As I said to the hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), everything we are doing is about ensuring that every student has a fighting chance to do well in the exams. There is a broad consensus that exams are the fairest way to judge a student’s assessment. We want to ensure that that fairness is spread right across the country, regardless of the experience any individual will have had as a result of the virus. That is why we are delaying the exams, why there have been changes to the assessment and why we are still working with Ofqual and the exam boards on further mitigations and contingencies to ensure that every student is treated fairly. We will have more to say about those issues shortly.

Young people across this country, including Sophie, an A-level student in my constituency, are extremely anxious about this year’s exams after last year’s fiasco, and due to the precious face-to-face teaching time lost in the first lockdown and to the current self-isolations and teacher absences. Why will the Minister not, please, listen to Sophie and follow the lead of the Liberal Democrat Education Minister in Wales by providing clarity and certainty now, by cancelling exams and moving to a robust teacher-led assessment? As Sophie said to me, “We are not lazy. We need your help.” Will the Minister please listen to her and help her?

We listen to all opinions on this issue, but there is a broad consensus, including among unions and school leaders, that holding exams is the best option for next summer. That is the fairest and best way of judging students’ performance. But as I said earlier, we know that all students due to sit exams next year have experienced disruption to their education due to the pandemic, and that is why we are working closely with the school sector to ensure that clear contingency plans are in place for students who are ill or have to self-isolate. We are engaging widely on contingency plans and other measures to ensure that exams are fair this year.

Can the Minister say how the arguments put forward by the Welsh Government to cancel GCSE and A-level exams are informing his own decision-making process at UK Government level?

Yes, I can. We of course look at the decisions taken by the devolved Administrations on such matters, but the broad consensus remains that exams are the fairest and best way of assessing student attainment and of ensuring that young people have the qualifications that they need for the next stage of their education. The £1 billion catch-up fund, £195 million on laptops and computers, the delay of three weeks in the exam timetable and the changes to assessment already announced by Ofqual are all designed to ensure that the experience of students next summer is as stress-free and as fair as possible.

I have received a number of letters from the heads of primary schools in Sittingbourne and Sheppey concerned about the potential further loss of learning time if pupils have to sit standard assessment and other tests. What reassurances will my right hon. Friend offer to my hard-working and valuable teachers that those tests are essential to the future development of children as they are being prepared for future individual and group study later in life?

My hon. Friend is right, as he so often is. The exams, and the preparation for revision, tests and exams at primary and secondary are the best way of ensuring that knowledge is retained, so it can be built on in the next stage of a young person’s education and training. That is why we are determined to do all we can to help young people catch up on the lost teaching time that they may have suffered while schools were closed to most pupils.

Despite the excellent news regarding vaccines this morning—Britain has the largest vaccine portfolio in the world—and despite the millions being put into getting schools on to a level playing field for all students regarding virtual teaching, it is estimated that right now some 80% of schools are disadvantaged when it comes to training their students who are isolating at home. Can the Schools Minister please tell me what discussions he is having with the examining boards? Will he ensure that they take all this into account when they are allocating grades next year?

My hon. Friend will know that 99% of schools are open and that overall attendance is 83% in secondary schools. We are working with the exam boards and with Ofqual on the issue of grading, and we will have more to say on that shortly, but we are also working with the exam boards and Ofqual to ensure that the experience students have next summer is as fair as possible, given all that they have experienced over the last year.

I was recently in touch with schools across my constituency and, other than the money to meet the costs of covid, a common theme was the disproportionate number of days lost by teaching staff and pupils in towns such as Rochdale and in Greater Manchester across the piece. The Minister says that he will make exams fair, but how can he do that when young people in Greater Manchester have lost more teaching hours than those in other parts of the country? Also, how can it be fair when young people who are at the end of the fourth term of their A-level syllabus still do not know what the regime will be as they approach their exams next summer?

We have been very clear that exams are the fairest and best way of assessing student attainment, but we are also conscious of the fact that a large number of pupils have suffered a different experience from other pupils up and down the country. We want to ensure that the exams are as fair as possible while also being valid qualifications. That is the work we have been doing with Ofqual and the exam boards for several weeks, and we have announced a delay of three weeks in the holding of those exams to try to free up as much teaching time as possible.

We all agree that exams would be the fairest and best way to assess pupils this year, and given the absolute chaos at the heart of last year’s exams, it would have been reasonable to expect Ministers to have a plan in place by now, yet the Minister’s answers this afternoon have been woefully inadequate, at a time when school leaders, teachers, parents and pupils are crying out for certainty. Given the obvious challenges to ensuring that exams go ahead in a way that is fair to all pupils, and the fact that any delay makes the job harder, when will Ministers present a plan, which teachers and pupils can see, for exams to go ahead in a fair way?

The hon. Gentleman is a serious Member of this House—I was delighted when he was appointed shadow Schools Minister; I congratulate him on that appointment, and welcome him to the Front Bench—so I know that he knows that these issues are complex. They need to be thought through and they need to be consulted on, and that is what we are doing with pace, rigour and energy, but I recognise that, in opposition, there is always a temptation to reach for the slogan rather than the solution.

Self-isolating Schoolchildren: Numbers

What estimate he has made of the number of schoolchildren required to self-isolate at home on 23 November 2020 as a result of being in contact with another pupil having received a positive covid-19 test result. (909067)

The latest published data shows that, as of 12 November, 0.2% of pupils in state-funded schools were absent due to a confirmed covid case, and between 5.8% and 6.7% were self-isolating due to contact either in or outside school. Statistics are published weekly, and the data for the week of 23 November will be published on 1 December.

First, will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Herne Church of England Junior School on achieving an extraordinarily high placing in The Sunday Times listings? There are schools in North Thanet with whole classes isolating, including year 1 and year 2 children. Those are the children scheduled to undergo phonic screening, and others are facing SATs. Further to the question put to the Minister of State by my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), will the Secretary of State look carefully and again consider the possibility of allowing teacher assessments to take the place of SATs, for this year only?

I join my right hon. Friend in congratulating Herne Church of England Junior School on its exceptional ranking, which is obviously down to the commitment and dedication of the teaching and support staff, as well, of course, as the pupils and parents, who do so much to support the school. He raises an important point about SATs and assessment. This is a useful internal tool for schools, enabling teachers to have a good grasp and clear understanding of where those children are, especially after so much disruption this year. We will be working closely with the sector to ensure that anything we do in this field is very much to support them and the children, and to support the learning and understanding of what support those children need going forward and not add extra pressures to them.

UK Internal Market Bill: Scotland’s Education System

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Scottish Government and (b) professional bodies in the education sector on the effect of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill on Scotland’s education system. (909068)

What recent discussions he has had with (a) the Scottish Government and (b) professional bodies in the education sector on the effect of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill on Scotland’s education system. (909084)

Throughout the development of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill proposals and preceding White Paper, the UK Government have engaged constructively with many businesses, professional organisations and other groups, including the General Teaching Council for Scotland.

During the debate on that Bill in the other place last week, Lord Callanan assured peers that

“the devolved Administrations will retain the right to legislate in devolved policy areas.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 18 November 2020; Vol. 807, c. 1520.]

However, during the previous Education questions the Secretary of State would not give a clear answer on whether the Bill could impact the Scottish Government’s ability to set university fees in Scotland. So can the Minister now confirm that her Government’s internal market Bill will not undermine the Scottish Government’s provision of free university tuition?

I can indeed confirm that it will not interfere with the Scottish Government’s ability to charge no fees for university students.

Well, that is a very unequivocal answer, so we look forward to that not coming back to bite them at any point in the future. I am glad the Minister is engaging with the GTCS, because in the other place the Minister has had to table an amendment to specifically include school teaching in the list of exempted professions. School teaching could be interpreted narrowly as solely relating to the education of children, but of course GTCS-registered teachers teach in many different educational settings, so will this Minister clarify whether the amendment is intended to include any institution in which teaching is delivered?

We have listened to the concerns about the Bill’s provision covering the mutual recognition of professional qualifications and have decided to exclude the teaching profession, so on Thursday 19 November the Government tabled an amendment to do just that.

That is an encouraging answer from the Minister, so I thank her for that response. She says that the Government have engaged with the GTCS, but last month the GTCS wrote to the Secretary of State on this very matter and has yet to receive a response. Is that normal Government practice when dealing with professional organisations? When should the GTCS expect to hear from the Secretary of State?

As the hon. Lady will know, officials from the Department for Education and the Scotland Office have met the GTCS to discuss these concerns and have passed them to those who are leading on the implementation of the UK internal market proposals. As a result, an amendment to exempt teachers from the recognition clauses of the Bill has been tabled.

Educational Attainment

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure improvement in educational attainment in each region of England. (909069)

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure improvement in educational attainment in each region of England. (909082)

There are still too many parts of the UK that have been left behind, and this Government are committed to bridging the gap in every region and levelling up opportunity in every corner of our country. That is why we are investing £2.5 billion in the national skills fund to turbocharge our economic recovery and introducing a lifetime skills guarantee, so that no one is left behind, no matter their age or stage of learning.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. As she is planning the budgets and assessing the regional challenges, will she take into consideration the different levels of pandemic across the country? The highest levels of infection lead to the highest levels of people having to isolate, including teachers, so there are increased budgetary costs from having to backfill teaching staff. King James’s School in Knaresborough, a secondary school in my constituency, briefed me that this is running at £7,000 a week, so schools are facing a significant challenge.

Of course, we are here to support schools and colleges, and we know that they are facing challenges. On top of their existing budgets, we have provided up to £75,000 additional funding to schools to cover unavoidable costs that could not be met from their existing budgets, which includes additional cleaning, support for free school meals and increased premises costs associated with keeping schools open for the holidays. There will be a further opportunity later in the year for schools to claim for eligible costs that fell between March and July that they did not claim for during that first window and, as the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, support for schools is kept under review.

I would very much like to see higher educational attainment across the Bolsover constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that a vital way in which we can make that happen is local post-16 provision and perhaps a sixth form in Bolsover itself?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government are committed to bringing excellent post-16 provision to every corner of the country. I was really glad to learn that West Nottinghamshire College, which serves many of his constituents, ranks among the top colleges in the UK for student satisfaction. He will be aware that local authorities have responsibilities regarding young people’s participation in education and training, and I have asked my colleagues in the Education and Skills Funding Agency to look closely at post-16 provision in the Bolsover area to identify whether further action is required.

I am sure the Minister will agree with me that children cannot learn if they are subject to exploitation and neglect, but that is precisely what is happening in children’s homes across the country. Last year, more than 37,000 cases were reported of looked-after children going missing from children’s homes. That is a 150% increase from 2015 and experts attribute this to rising criminal and sexual exploitation. The Government promised a review into children’s care nearly a year ago. What on earth is delaying this?

Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children from wherever they go missing. Children who go missing from home can face the same risks as a child going missing from local authority care. The Department for Education’s statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care settings sets out clear steps that local authorities and their partners should take to prevent all children from going missing and to protect them if they do go missing. Responsibilities to missing children remain unchanged during the pandemic. We expect local authorities to feel empowered to use their judgment to find suitable ways to safeguard children from the risks of going missing.

Holiday Activities and Food Programme

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the timely implementation of the expansion of the holiday activities and food programme throughout the regions of England. (909071)

Rolling out the excellent holiday activity and food programme for children across the country will mean that even more children will benefit from free healthy meals and enriching holiday activities. We have already written to all the local authorities with guidance. We will work closely with them, including sharing best practice from our pilot programmes, and we are appointing a national organisation from spring next year to support the local delivery.

Ipswich was lucky enough to be one of those pilots and, this summer, it actually had the holiday activity and food programme in operation. It was great to go there to meet not only the children who benefited from it, but the different organisations and the young adults from Ipswich who were able to play a part in delivering that service. Can the Minister outline what plans are in place, looking ahead to the Easter and summer holidays, to make sure that this continues to happen and that the community is completely aware of how it can get involved in this fantastic project?

It was a huge pleasure to visit the Government’s holiday activity and food programme with my hon. Friend in Ipswich this summer. We saw at first hand how local partnerships helped to deliver these excellent schemes, so we want to encourage schools, childcare providers, food suppliers, voluntary organisations, sports experts, and arts experts all to come together in partnership. Interested parties should contact their local authorities and together we will all make sure that next year’s holidays are full of food and fun.

Healthcare Higher Education Funding

What recent assessment he has made of the potential merits of reforming the funding of healthcare higher education in England. (909073)

The Government keep the funding arrangements for the education of all pre-registration undergraduate and postgraduate NHS health professions under close review to ensure that students are appropriately supported. Most NHS professional student placements are funded by the education and training tariff, and the allocation of funding is reviewed and published annually.

Nursing and midwifery students are required to undertake 2,300 hours of clinical placement to qualify. Maintenance grants were reintroduced in England in September, but those student nurses and midwives who just graduated or who are about to, and who stepped up in the first wave of the pandemic despite the personal risks, have huge debts because the Government abolished their bursaries in 2016. What will the Minister do to acknowledge their tremendous contribution and ensure that they do not begin their careers in caring feeling undervalued, taken advantage of and carrying this massive financial burden?

I echo the hon. Member’s sentiment about the true value that nursing students and graduates have given this country during one of the hardest times that we have faced. The Government are extremely grateful for all those students who opted into a paid clinical placement in the NHS during this extremely difficult time, and we have ensured that all those students were fairly rewarded for their hard work. Nursing, midwifery and allied healthcare students who volunteered were paid and received the appropriate pensions remuneration.

Union Learning Fund

What discussions he has had with stakeholders in the education sector on his Department’s decision to end the union learning fund in 2021. (909074)

The Government are transforming the provision of skills. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and I regularly meet a diverse spectrum of stakeholders from around the further education sector to hear their views. On Unionlearn specifically, I met the TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, on 12 October to discuss this matter and our expanding commitment to skills through the national skills fund. The Secretary of State for Education met Frances O’Grady on 9 November for the very same reason.

Let us head up to Wansbeck and Ian Lavery. [Inaudible.] I think he has been cut off in his prime. I therefore call shadow Minister Toby Perkins.

The recent Westminster Hall debate on Unionlearn was as illuminating for what was not said as for what was. There was no attempt by the Government to pretend that there had been a serious consultation with employers or educators before ceasing funding, nor was there a single Conservative Back-Bench MP willing to turn up to that debate to speak in favour of this cut. Does the Minister realise that no one will believe that the Government are serious about levelling up while they are cutting access to level 2 skills for the lowest paid workers?

This Government are committed to substantial investment in further education, with priority given to qualifications aligned with our economic need, but, as I said during that debate, we need to focus taxpayers’ money on those who need it. With only 11% of users unemployed, Unionlearn simply is not the solution.[Official Report, 30 November 2020, Vol. 685, c. 2MC.] That is why, from April 2021, we will be fully funding the first level 3 qualification for adults who do not currently have a level 3 qualification. As I said during the debate, many of the basic provisions to which Unionlearn signposts learners are available right across the country, and have been available and introduced since Unionlearn was in existence.

This Government have a strange way of levelling up, and education is no different. Since its creation in 1998 by the Labour Government, the Unionlearn fund has enjoyed cross-party support and the backing of dozens of businesses. It is a flagship policy that costs the Government £12 million and returns £1.4 billion to the economy. It currently supports 200,000 individuals per annum to access learning; it is absolutely huge. Minister, put your cards on the table—this is an out-and- out attack against the trade union movement and its members. What is it about this hugely successful programme, which helps low-paid working people, that so antagonises the modern Conservative party?

I am the first to recognise that, thanks to the funding provided by the Government, Unionlearn has done good work in directing and supporting people to take advantage of education and training opportunities in the workplace, but with millions in this country still lacking basic skills that they need to progress, we need a solution at scale that can reach everyone, not just those able to access the Unionlearn network. We have therefore created the £2.5 billion national skills fund and the £500 million skills recovery package to transform lives up and down the country, and to build our country back better; and we are making that available to everybody across the country.

Free School Meals: No Recourse to Public Funds

What progress the Government have made on reviewing the extension of free school meals provision to children of families with no recourse to public funds. (909077)

This Government are completely committed to free school meals, and no Government have ever been more generous with entitlements, extending eligibility to all infants and disadvantaged children in further education. But throughout the pandemic we also extended eligibility to groups with no recourse to public funds, and we continue to work across Government on longer-term eligibility for these families. Meanwhile, the extension of eligibility for free school meals remains.

It is Government policy that has forced overstretched schools, charities and councils like Southwark to pick up the pieces and pay the price of the hostile environment that has left over 100,000 with no recourse to support, according to the Children’s Society. The Minister says that there are cross-Government talks. What representations has she made to the Home Office to end this scandal and save schools from this huge, inappropriate burden when they are already struggling with covid?

I remind the hon. Member that our new £170 million covid winter grant scheme will directly target the hardest-to-help families and individuals, and also provide food for children in need of it over the holidays. Some families with no recourse to public funds do receive support from the Home Office as is provided for under the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999, and section 17 of the Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area if they are in need, regardless of their immigration status.

Topical Questions

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.