Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 January 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Further and Higher Education: End of Transition Period

What assessment he has made of the effect of the end of the transition period on (a) further and (b) higher education. (910834)

What assessment he has made of the effect of the end of the transition period on (a) further and (b) higher education. (910859)

We have worked with the sector on the steps it needed to take following the transition period. This included questions around participation in European Union programmes, migration and student support arrangements. We are replacing the European social fund via the UK shared prosperity fund and introducing the new Turing scheme.

Before Brexit, EU students contributed £1.2 billion to the UK economy annually, boosting the profile of UK universities globally and helping to support the pipeline of talented science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduates and medical graduates. With the reality of excessively high international student fees, many EU students will choose to study elsewhere, so how will the Secretary of State ensure that the Turing scheme, a poor replacement for Erasmus, is as effective in encouraging inward student mobility?

The Turing scheme is not a poor replacement, but a brilliant replacement for Erasmus. It is about us looking around the globe as to how we can expand opportunities for students. Yes, there are many, many brilliant higher education student institutes right across Europe, but there are so many more right across the world, whether in the United States or Canada, whether in India or China or whether in Australia and so many other places. That is what we are going to be giving young people the opportunity to release, and they will have the opportunity to go and study there as well.

Under the Horizon 2020 programme, the UK consistently received more money out than it put in. Under the terms of this agreement, the UK is set to receive no more than it contributes. While universities in Scotland were relieved to see a commitment to Horizon Europe in the joint agreement, what additional funding will the Secretary of State make available to ensure that our overall level of research funding is maintained?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Government have been very clear in our commitment to research. The Prime Minister has stated time and time again that our investment in research is absolutely there, ensuring that we deliver Britain as a global scientific superpower. That is why more money has been going into research, and universities will continue to play an incredibly important role in that, but as he will be aware, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy manages the research element that goes into the funding of universities.

The anxiety caused by the lack of answers on the impact of the end of transition upon students is only adding to the anxiety that they already feel because of the impact that covid-19 has had on their educational experience, their finances and their graduate job prospects, which is all made worse by the fact that students do not feel that their voice is being heard by Government. Perhaps the greatest injustice of them all, they feel, is being made to pay rent for accommodation that the Secretary of State has mandated they should not use. What is he going to do to right this wrong?

As the hon. Lady will know, before Christmas we set out plans to support youngsters who were going to be facing the greatest hardship. We continue to keep this under review, and we will continue to work with the sector to provide the best support to students up and down the land.

Covid-19: Remote Education

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910835)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910853)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of remote education for children during the covid-19 lockdown. (910860)

Teachers and leaders are working incredibly hard, making tremendous efforts to provide and to improve their high- quality remote education. We have set clear strengthened expectations for schools and further education providers, and our “Get help with remote education” page on provides a range of support, training and good practice for schools and parents to look at.

All schools are under huge pressure, delivering teaching both in class and online at the same time, and many are doing an absolutely fantastic job. However, some parents are naturally worried that their children are not getting as much direct live teaching as pupils at other schools they have heard about, and they have a right to understand why. Does my right hon. Friend agree that parents should challenge their school directly and discuss their concerns with the head of the governing body and that making a complaint to Ofsted, as Ministers have suggested they do, should only be the last resort?

Absolutely. We have always been clear—and I stated this to the House just a couple of weeks ago—that we encourage parents, in the first instance, to speak with a teacher or headteacher, and only as a last resort to go to Ofsted. We want to see and encourage as much live teaching as possible, which is shown to be the best way of delivering teaching, but a whole spectrum of resources can be offered. It is really important to work with schools, with parents supporting those schools, to ensure that we get the best solutions for all our children.

I know from my experience with my own children that having live lessons taught online is much more effective than simply placing learning resources online. With more than 750,000 laptops already delivered and 2.9 million laptops already available in schools for the use of children, the digital divide has been substantially overcome. With that in mind, can my right hon. Friend give an indication of the percentage of schools providing live teaching online? Does he have plans to increase that further?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the great strides that have been made in supporting schools, and in schools supporting parents, on the provision of remote education. We obviously encourage schools to put on as much live provision as possible, which is very beneficial, and we are working with the whole school and further education sector to support them with that request. We are seeing substantial gains, and we are monitoring the situation closely, as is Ofsted.

I thank all the teachers in Ipswich, many of whom are balancing still teaching some kids physically and teaching some remotely. On the theme of live learning, does the Secretary of State consider the impact on those with special educational needs? For them, live lessons are particularly important, especially if they have speech and language difficulties, because live engagement gives them the opportunity to question and is very valuable. Live lessons can also be hugely beneficial for the mental health of many pupils, because even if it is just a couple of hours a day, they have that live engagement, and they see other pupils and their teacher.

As always, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head: it is so important to ensure that we get the right balance for young people, especially those with special educational needs. That is why we took the decision to ensure that children who have an education, health and care plan are able to go into school, as part of the category of vulnerable children who may need extra face-to-face support from their teachers.

The fact is that up to 1.8 million children in this country do not have access to a device at home, and more than 800,000 do not have access to the internet needed. Even with the laptops that the Secretary of State has already provided and those he intends to provide, the provision of devices and dongles falls well short. Why is the Secretary of State willing to accept standards for other people’s children that he would never accept for his own, and why is it that, once again, the incompetence of his Department has left children across the country seriously disadvantaged?

At every stage, we on the Government Benches—and, I am sure, those on the Opposition Benches—want to deliver the very best for every single child, wherever they live and whatever background they come from. The hon. Gentleman may want to play politics over children’s lives, but we are focused on delivering for those children. That is why, on top of the stock of 2.9 million laptops and tablets that are already out there, we took the decision to invest £400 million in purchasing and distributing an additional 1.3 million devices, making a total of 4.2 million devices in the school system.

Of course, a laptop or a device is really just a glorified typewriter if you cannot access the internet. We know that nearly 1 million youngsters in the UK are in that situation. Given that BT’s offer of free internet access was rejected by the Secretary of State, how does he plan to help such children to access the internet for remote education?

At every stage, we work with many companies, including EE, Three and BT, to ensure that we maximise the amount of data that is available for those children who are most vulnerable. The hon. Lady will be pleased that many children in Scotland are able to benefit from the work we have been doing with those providers. I imagine that she will be keen to pass on her thanks and appreciation for that work, which has been undertaken to the benefit of all children in the United Kingdom.

Of course, I welcome the support that these internet companies have provided; I only wish the Secretary of State would take his responsibility in this area more seriously, and had moved more quickly. The success of remote learning is not just about the right equipment. It is also about youngsters’ readiness to learn, and that includes whether or not they have eaten. The Scottish Government are ensuring that no child is left hungry during remote learning by ensuring either a cash-first response or vouchers, depending on the preference of the family. Having seen the meagre offerings in these free school meals from some private providers in England, will the UK Government make a similar commitment, and provide either cash or voucher support to the families who are entitled to free school meals?

As the hon. Lady is probably aware, we have opened up the national voucher scheme to all schools in England. We give those schools the option of providing food parcels or locally procured vouchers, or of making use of the national voucher scheme. This is a broad range of options for schools, enabling them to ensure that all children are fed, which I believe is both her priority and mine.

The Department for Education’s own pre-pandemic study found that pupils’ wellbeing predicted their later academic progression. Children with better mental health and wellbeing at age seven had a value-added key stage 2 score 2.46 points higher—equivalent to more than one term’s progress—than pupils with poorer wellbeing and mental health. While schools are closed and children are remote learning, mental health worries for millions of children have rocketed, as highlighted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and others. Will my right hon Friend work with charities such as Place2Be to put mental health councillors in all schools now, so that children can access support whenever they need it and their attainment levels will not suffer even further?

I know that my right hon. Friend speaks for many in the House who have particular concerns about children’s mental health, and about making sure that, as we work through this pandemic, this is not something that is forgotten and on which no action is taken. We have already undertaken work on helping schools to train staff to support not just pupils, but staff. I would be very happy to sit down with my right hon. Friend to discuss the work that many charities and voluntary organisations undertake, and how they can properly and fully support all children and all those who work in the education sector when it comes to their mental health.

Early Years Providers: Financial Stability

What steps he is taking to ensure the financial stability of early years providers during the covid-19 outbreak. (910836)

What steps he is taking to ensure the financial stability of early years providers during the covid-19 outbreak. (910837)

What steps he is taking to ensure the financial stability of early years providers during the covid-19 outbreak. (910838)

We have given unprecedented support to early years throughout the pandemic, through block-buying childcare places, and through the furlough and other schemes. We are monitoring the situation very closely, and are keeping under constant review whether further action is needed. To support providers further, we have issued additional advice to make it clear that children who are temporarily absent from nurseries can be counted in this week’s census, even if they are ill or if their parents are worried about covid.

Nurseries and childcare providers in deprived areas are most likely to close, which is catastrophic for disadvantaged children. Coronavirus presents a significant threat to early years providers in Portsmouth, with many already struggling financially. What action will the Minister take to ensure we do not lose essential childcare places in less well-off communities as a result of the pandemic?

As I have said, we have given unprecedented support to the early years sector. It does an amazing job, and we are keeping the question of whether any further action is needed under constant review. The advice that we gave last week is really important, because this week is the annual census week, and it is really important that those providers know that they can count children who are temporarily absent, provided they remain open for them. That is really important advice to our early years providers.

With so many staff in early years settings having to isolate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to open the maintained nursery schools in my constituency, as they do not have surplus staff to rely on. What funding will be made available to mitigate that, so that support staff can be employed to cover staff who are shielding or self-isolating?

We are taking two actions urgently to support our early years. The first is the roll-out of asymptomatic testing for staff. Asymptomatic testing went live through the community testing system last week, and I have written to local authorities to ensure that early years staff are prioritised in their community testing. Secondly, if maintained nursery schools and, indeed, other private providers have a staff shortage that means they need to close temporarily, they can still count those children for this week’s census—just as they can in any year if they have a temporary closure due to, for example, a flood. They can still count those children, provided the closure is only temporary.

Many children’s nurseries in east Hull face severe financial difficulty from years of underfunding, and from exclusion from support during this pandemic. The Minister knows that childcare providers in disadvantaged areas such as east Hull are the most likely to close, and that that would be catastrophic for many young children, whose life chances are shaped by early education. Can she guarantee that we will not lose essential childcare places in less well-off areas such as east Hull as a result of covid-19?

We have already announced in the spending review that we will put additional funding into early years entitlements in the next financial year. That will allow us to increase the hourly funding rates for all local authorities by at least 8p an hour for two-year-olds, and by 6p an hour for three and four-year-olds; of course, those in areas of higher disadvantage get higher amounts of money. That will pay for a rate increase that is higher than the cost nurseries may face from the uplift to the national living wage in April.

Ministers are telling everyone to stay at home, yet early years providers are being told to stay open for as many children as possible or lose funding. This month’s funding changes mean that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders will be punished financially for having lower demand than usual, or for limiting their opening during lockdown, and 19,000 providers could close by summer as a result. Is that a price the Minister is willing to pay, or does she think those warning about this are wrong?

As the Opposition spokesperson knows very well, because I called her last week, we are providing that advice to settings to ensure that it is very clear that if parents are keeping their children at home because they are concerned about covid, settings can still count those children for the census, provided they are open. If they choose to close, they can furlough their staff using the other Government schemes. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely to see whether further support is needed.

Early Years Settings: Educational Development

What steps his Department is taking to support the educational development of children in early years settings during the covid-19 outbreak. (910839)

What steps his Department is taking to support the educational development of children in early years settings during the covid-19 outbreak. (910852)

The early years are a crucial period for a child’s development, and early years education cannot be delivered online. That is why, in June last year, the Government prioritised getting children back to nurseries and childminders. Given the negative impact of children missing education, Public Health England’s advice that the early years sector is a less significant driver of community transmission, and the low rates of infection among the very young, we advise that early years settings should remain open to all children, and we are working with early years organisations to ensure that no young child gets left behind.

I am proud to support and be a member of the early years healthy development review, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). We will share our recommendations in February. The review team has found, from discussions with early years professionals, that family hubs play a vital role in ensuring that every infant gets the best start in life, including as regards their educational development. Does my hon. Friend agree?

I so agree with my hon. Friend. That is why we are setting up a national centre for family hubs. There are already many family hubs across the country providing a wide range of integrated services, including support for families in the early years. I visited the family hub in Westminster in her constituency to see the difference it makes to families. We want to ensure that successful approaches, such as that in Westminster, can be spread across the country.

As a father with a son in nursery, I know just how important it is to keep early years open for all children. I thank the Government for doing so, and thank all our schools and early years providers across Stoke-on-Trent for everything they are doing to stay open for those eligible. Given the impact on children who are currently unable to attend school, and their families, will my hon. Friend outline what action will be taken to ensure those children catch up quickly when schools can fully reopen?

We have committed to a £1 billion catch-up package, which is a universal £650 million catch-up premium, and the £350 million national tutoring programme to support the most disadvantaged pupils. We expect providers to prioritise support for pupils by individual need. The Education Endowment Foundation has published guidance to support catch-up. To help the very youngest children to catch up, we are delivering the Nuffield Early Language Intervention in reception year. Some 40% of primary schools have signed up for the programme. These programmes will help many children in Stoke and across the country.

Remote Learning: Laptops and Other Devices

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of (a) laptops and (b) other devices to disadvantaged pupils to support remote learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (910840)

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of (a) laptops and (b) other devices to disadvantaged pupils to support remote learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (910855)

What assessment he has made of the availability of (a) devices and (b) access to broadband for school and college pupils working from home during the covid-19 outbreak. (910857)

What assessment his Department has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of (a) laptops and (b) other devices to disadvantaged pupils to support remote learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (910863)

We are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education, including by providing 1.3 million laptops and tablets to disadvantaged children. We are partnering with the UK’s leading mobile operators to provide free data, as well as deliver 4G wireless routers for pupils without a connection at home.

Wingate Community Nursery School in my Sedgefield constituency has continued to provide excellent early years education to its students throughout the covid-19 pandemic. As a result of the change to the early years education funding process, which will see nurseries receive funding per hour if a student is in attendance, and with many parents struggling with the decision of whether to send their children to nursery, Wingate nursery may find itself financially worse off. Will the Secretary of State look again at the changes to the funding process and confirm that they will not have a negative impact on nurseries financially?

I would very much like to join my hon. Friend in thanking the staff at Wingate for all the work they do to support children, including in these incredibly difficult times. He is right to point out how we proceeded with the funding mechanism prior to Christmas. Obviously, in the light of the changing course of the pandemic, we had to make revisions to ensure that nurseries such as Wingate across the country get the support they need. That is why we have changed the approach to the census being carried out this week.

The Welsh Government, which is led by Labour with a Liberal Democrat Education Minister, have presided over an 8.4% real-terms reduction in education spending in the past 10 years. Last week, my office identified that dozens of the most deprived households in my constituency still do not have access to suitable devices for learning remotely. What advice can my right hon. Friend give me on assisting the young learners in my constituency, who are being let down once again by the Welsh Government?

Of course, we will always want to work very closely with all the devolved Administrations, sharing good practice and good ideas across the board. I understand that the Welsh Government are still sitting on £1 billion-worth of covid funding provided to them by the UK Government. We would ensure that that was not sat in their coffers, but was spent wisely to support children in my hon. Friend’s constituency and right across Wales.

In the city of Cambridge last week, 1,748 children were without a suitable device for learning. Across the county as a whole, almost 6,500 were. Ministers have had almost a year to sort this out. When will every child have access to the learning they need?

I point the hon. Gentleman to an answer I gave earlier. Over 2.9 million devices are already in circulation within the school system. That has been supplemented by an additional 1.3 million, of which 750,000 have already been dispatched. Over the last two weeks, we have been seeing the dispatch of devices to schools running at approximately 20,000 each day.

I thank Ministers and education officers for their work, and most of all, I thank teachers on the Isle of Wight for keeping education going in these very difficult circumstances; I am sure that the Secretary of State would want to do so as well. Can he explain what further support is being planned for children in need on the Island and what is being done to ensure adequate virtual learning across all schools?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking teachers and support staff on the Isle of Wight for their work over the last few months and for their continued work and efforts in terms of ensuring that every child on the Isle of Wight gets the very best education. We have already announced the increase in the number of devices that we are procuring—increasing that from the initial 200,000 that we announced a number of months ago to 1.3 million; this is very much there to complement the offer—and we have set out explicitly the expectations that we have of all schools and colleges in terms of the provision of remote education in these truly unprecedented times.

Technical and Vocational Exams

What steps he is taking to support students (a) preparing for and (b) taking vocational exams during the covid-19 outbreak. (910842)

What steps his Department is taking to support students to sit their (a) technical and (b) vocational exams in 2021. (910856)

Students due to undergo assessments in 2020-21 deserve the opportunity to progress successfully on to the next stage of their lives. That is why, alongside Ofqual, the Government are currently consulting on the alternative arrangements needed for vocational and technical examinations due to take place from April onwards. In the meantime, we are investing over £400 million to support access to remote education and, having already delivered 700,000 laptops and tablets to schools up and down the country, we are now rolling out the programme to 16 to 19 year-olds in colleges. The majority of FE providers will be invited to order their devices by the end of January.

As my hon. Friend will know, schools and colleges—for instance, Havering college in my constituency—were asked to make their own decisions about whether or not students should sit vocational exams in January, meaning that some exams went ahead while others were cancelled. What measures are the Government taking to ensure that students will not be unfairly disadvantaged, whether they were able to sit their exams or not?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question because it gives me the opportunity to make one thing absolutely clear to the House: no student will be disadvantaged by their decision either to sit their January assessment or to defer it. That means that, for those learners requiring a licence to practise, which can be fulfilled only through practical assessment, that assessment can go ahead, and, indeed, many did. Launched on Friday, Ofqual’s consultation is seeking views on what the alternative arrangements should be and how those alternative arrangements will ensure fairness for all learners and give everybody the opportunity to progress on to their next stage.

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those replies. It is very important that the students and apprentices taking technical and vocational exams are not overlooked. Will she assure the House that the work of making alternative arrangements for them will be given a high priority and the necessary resources; that these arrangements will be conveyed quickly; that priority will be given to returning to buildings when on-site assessments are a key part of a course; and that exam support services will be available to colleges as well as to schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I could not agree more about the importance of ensuring vocational and technical qualification students are treated fairly and not disadvantaged compared with their peers. We have been working at pace with Ofqual to ensure appropriate arrangements are in place specifically for vocational and technical qualification learners, and the joint consultation we published on Friday seeks views specifically on those qualifications. As soon as possible, we will prioritise safe attendance for those students who need to attend on site in order to prepare for practical assessments, where it is impossible for that training to take place remotely. I can confirm that the exam support service is indeed available to colleges as well as schools.

I pay tribute to everyone in the further education sector, and particularly those college leaders who have been left with very difficult decisions to make this January because of the BTEC exam fiasco. The Government’s farcical approach to those exams has left college leaders to show leadership and concern for pupil and teacher safety, in the absence of any from the Government. As the question from the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has just exposed, we now have students and colleges on different tracks to the same exams. It is all so unnecessary. How many more vocational students must suffer as a result of the Secretary of State’s inability to make the right decisions at the right time?

I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to everyone in the further education sector. They have done an amazing job in keeping learning going, whether remotely—they have been absolutely outstanding in that area—or by preparing colleges to take students.

Learners up and down the country have faced unprecedented challenges this year. For those who have worked so hard over recent months preparing for their January exams, particularly those who require a practical licence to practise, it is right that we allow them the opportunity to progress, because no alternative arrangements are capable of being put in place for those types of exams. Schools and colleges are best placed to know whether they are in a position to deliver the January exams and what mix of students they have, which is why in the light of rapidly evolving public health advice, we took the decision to give them the final say on whether proceeding with January exams was right for their learners. I am sure the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the whole House, will join me in wishing those learners all the very best for their results.

Covid-19: Additional Costs to Schools

What financial support his Department is providing to schools to fund additional costs relating to the covid-19 outbreak. (910843)

Some £102 million of funding for exceptional covid-related costs incurred by schools in the first lockdown period of March to July 2020 has already been distributed to schools, and for November and December, schools under financial pressure that have exceptional additional staffing costs due to covid-related absences have been able to claim from the covid workforce fund.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He is aware from our discussions that many Twickenham schools have incurred significant one-off and ongoing costs to become covid secure that they have not been able to reclaim, at the same time as losing tens of thousands of pounds from lettings and fundraising. Many of them do not have significant cash reserves to rely on, nor does the council have the money to bail them out, so if schools are to reopen fully and safely as soon as possible, could the Minister please advise which staff and activities he thinks are expendable so that they can make ends meet?

The hon. Member will be aware that we secured a three-year funding settlement for schools, with a 4% increase in funding for the next financial year, and we have also secured for this year a £1 billion catch-up fund and the covid workforce fund. If a school is genuinely in financial difficulties, it should talk to the local authority if it is a maintained school, or to the Education and Skills Funding Agency if it is an academy.

Covid-19 Lockdown: Safety of Staff

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of staff at (a) early years settings, (b) special schools and (c) alternative provision during the covid-19 lockdown announced in January 2021. (910844)

What steps he is taking to help ensure the safety of staff at (a) early years settings, (b) special schools and (c) alternative provision during the covid-19 lockdown announced in January 2021. (910854)

Ensuring the safety of children, the workforce and families is our overriding priority. The early years and schools workforce are classed as essential workers for the purposes of accessing testing, and we continue to update our guidance to help specific settings provide a safe and secure environment for children and staff.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency has contradicted the Government by saying that it has not authorised the use of 30-minute lateral flow tests to allow students to remain in classrooms instead of sending whole groups or bubbles home. Will the Minister confirm that no tests are being done on our children that have not met with regulatory approval, and will the Government commit to putting the health and safety of children first, instead of the PM’s deregulatory ideology that is turning our schools into experimentation labs for big pharma?

We have added NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, and we have asked them to provide rapid updated public health advice on daily contact covid testing in schools. This is in the context of the current prevalence of the virus and the high transmission rates. The Department, NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England encourage the weekly testing of all staff, although this remains a voluntary matter for individual staff members. As I said earlier, early years staff will be prioritised through community testing.

Last week, I was contacted by the inspirational headteacher of Tunstall Nursery School in my constituency. She and her team have worked so hard to ensure that vital education is provided to kids as safely as possible, but she contacted me to express urgent concern over the safety of her pupils and staff because of covid-19. Other nurseries and special schools in my constituency have contacted me with the same concern. Does the Minister agree that this situation is unacceptable and that, at the very least, they deserve to see the clear detailed scientific evidence and advice that the Government have received about the safety of early years settings? Why have we still not seen that?

All the advice that we have been given has been made public. There are three reasons why we have kept early years settings open and they are all important. Early education gives the child communication and social skills that set them up for life. You cannot teach a small child online, and they cannot get those months back. Our public health advice remains that younger children play a lower role in community transmission, and the evidence at the moment is that the confirmed cases of covid among the very youngest children are the lowest of all age groups.

Nursery School Funding

If he will increase funding for nursery schools to meet costs resulting from the covid-19 outbreak. (910845)

We have already increased the hourly funding rates for local authorities for the next financial year, and this will pay for a rate increase that is higher than the cost that nurseries may face from the uplift for the national living wage in April. We are also increasing the minimum funding floor. We have provided further advice on how the census will work this year, and we are continuing to monitor the situation closely.

Maintained nursery schools in my constituency not only provide first-class early education but support many working families with childcare, yet many are facing huge financial pressures because of the pandemic, because they are not able to access the same support as schools and businesses. When will the Government live up to their promise of giving them a long-term future by guaranteeing their funding?

Maintained nursery schools are a really important part of the early years environment. We give them extra supplemental funding, and we have already announced that we will be giving them the supplemental funding for the next financial year. Obviously, this was a three-year spending review process, so I cannot go further than this financial year, but they will also get the other benefits from the uplift that we are doing for the Government-paid entitlements for two, three and four-year-olds on top of that. I would like to thank all the maintained nursery schools and early years providers in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

International Baccalaureate Examinations

What arrangements his Department has made for examinations in 2021 for international baccalaureate students. (910847)

Although exams are the fairest way of assessing what a student knows, it is no longer viable for exams to go ahead as planned, so international baccalaureate students should be subject to a similar approach to GCSEs and A-levels. Working with Ofqual, we are consulting on alternative arrangements for fairly awarding grades in qualifications, including the IB, when exams do not take place, so that students can progress to the next stage of their lives.

Some of the schools in my constituency elect to take the IB examinations rather than A-levels. No final decision has yet been taken as to whether those exams will take place this spring, so will my right hon. Friend commit to assisting these schools, so that no child who takes the IB exam will be disadvantaged compared with those who are due to take A-levels?

I am aware of some excellent schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency, particularly Dartford Grammar School, under the excellent headteacher, Mr Oakes, that do offer the IB. The joint consultation document that we published on Friday says that

“it is the Department’s policy position that external exams for many vocational, technical and other general qualifications should not take place as planned.”

It goes on to say:

“For other general qualifications that are not GCSEs…or A levels, such as…the International Baccalaureate, the awarding approach should be similar to GCSEs, AS and A levels”.

In other words, we are talking about teacher-assessed grades but with the evidence base and checks and balances, as set out in the consultation document.

Secondary Schools: Refurbishment and Rebuilding

The Prime Minister announced a new 10-year school rebuilding programme, which will transform education for thousands of pupils. It was launched with a commitment to 50 new school building projects a year, targeted at school buildings in the worst condition. We have also committed £1.8 billion next year to improve the condition of school buildings.

Upton-by-Chester High School in my constituency is a good school with an outstanding sixth form, but its buildings are not fit for purpose. What would the Minister advise me and the school leadership that they need to do to make sure they catch his eye in future programmes? Will he come to Upton, as soon as he is allowed, to visit the school?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that since 2015 we have allocated £9.5 billion to maintaining and improving school buildings. In addition, the priority school building programme is rebuilding or refurbishing buildings in the worst condition at more than 500 schools. I would be delighted to discuss with him Upton-by-Chester High School, which has a very high EBacc entry figure of 60%. It is a good school and I congratulate its headteacher, Mr Cummins, on what he has achieved.

Topical Questions

I very much wish to start by thanking all those who work in our schools, colleges, early years settings and universities for the work they have been doing over the past few weeks to ensure that youngsters and people of all ages who are using our education establishment get the very best education. In the light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have confirmed that GCSE, A-level and AS-level exams will not be going ahead as planned this summer. This year’s grades will be awarded based on the judgment of teachers, not algorithms. I am pleased to confirm that Ofqual, with the Department, has launched a two-week consultation to seek views on how to fairly award all pupils, including private candidates and students taking vocational qualifications, the grades they truly deserve.

May I, too, start by thanking all teachers and educational staff in Stourbridge, who continue to do a vital job in the most difficult of circumstances? Although we are asking the vast majority of schools to move to remote provision, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only right that we, once again, keep schools open for vulnerable children and those whose parents are working on the frontline of our response to this pandemic?

I very much join my hon. Friend and neighbour in thanking all those teachers and support staff who have been doing a brilliant job in Stourbridge in keeping schools open for children of critical workers and for vulnerable children. It is important to emphasise the need to encourage children, especially those in most vulnerable categories, to come into school and continue to have that support and protection that school offers them, and the importance of doing so—it gives them so much support, in sometimes difficult circumstances. I thank all teaching staff for ensuring that schools remain open for children of critical workers.

The utterly inadequate school food parcels we saw last week were an absolute scandal, one that was, however, entirely in line with the Government’s own guidance. So why has it taken the Secretary of State until the third week of term to initiate a voucher system? Can he tell the House how many parents received vouchers today?

As the hon. Lady would know if she had taken the time to read our guidance, those food parcels did not meet the expectations or the guidance that we set out. They are not acceptable and we have made that clear. We are very keen to ensure that schools have the choice and freedom to choose what is best for children in their school. That is why we have given schools—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady stopped chuntering from a sedentary position she would have the opportunity to hear my answer. That is why we have given schools the opportunity to choose food parcels, vouchers that are locally procured or the national voucher scheme. More than 15,000 of those vouchers have already been dispatched today.

Ah, so we got the answer in the end. The truth is that the Secretary of State was late in planning the voucher scheme, late in getting laptops to students, late in consulting on replacing exams, and late in announcing that students will not return to school in January. After delay after delay, has he finally realised what parents, pupils and staff have known for months, which is that he is just not up to the job?

Time and again, we have recognised where there are real challenges in dealing with the global pandemic. That is why we have taken the action that we have. That is why we are distributing 1.3 million laptops right across the country.

That is why we have put the national voucher scheme in place. That is why we are supporting families who are often the most vulnerable and why we will continue supporting families who are the most vulnerable.

I wish to start by putting on the record my thank you to all those early years and nursery workers in Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich in my constituency. During the pandemic, private nurseries have seen their cleaning costs and the costs of PPE increase fourfold, but, as they are not state run, they get no assistance with those increased costs. Will the Minister meet me to discuss a funding solution that will address this immediate concern while also working towards a meaningful review of early years funding? (910897)

We have provided unprecedented support to the early years sector throughout the pandemic, through the block-buying childcare places, furlough and other schemes. We are monitoring the current situation really closely and will continue to review it if further measures are needed. For example, where education and childcare settings have an unmet need for PPE, they can access it via their local authority or local resilience forums. We will continue to keep supporting our early years sector.

As Ministers know, both the children’s commissioner and I are keen to get their support for a ban on placing looked-after children in unregulated accommodation, but I understand that the Department wants to do this only for under-16s, which would currently affect 90 or so children. There are many, many more 16 to 18-year-olds in unsafe accommodation who are still legally children and who are still meant to be in our care. Can the Minister explain the justification for treating them differently and, in doing so, potentially putting them at risk of harm? (910895)

Independent and semi-independent provision can be the right choice for older children who are ready for this where it is high quality and meets their needs. It can enable them to develop their independence as they transition into adult life. However, we are absolutely clear that we need to do more to ensure that the quality of this provision is consistently good, and that this type of provision is simply not appropriate for children under the age of 16 who should be placed in children’s homes or foster care. We have consulted on introducing national quality standards and we will publish the Government’s response to the consultation in due course.

I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has received a lot of ill-informed and abusive emails and posts on social media about the school lunches. I am pleased that the Department has established a hotline for complaints about the lunch parcels. I am absolutely certain that most schools are providing good quality parcels for children. Please will she confirm how many complaints about food parcels the newly established hotline has received? (910899)

DFE helplines have been giving support to schools and others on a wide range of matters. On Wednesday morning, after seeing some of the photos of unacceptable parcels, we announced that parents could call the DFE if they had a problem with a lunch parcel, but that they should try to resolve it with the school first. There are around 1.4 million children on free school meals. By the end of last week, we had received a total of seven calls in relation to unacceptable lunch parcels. Each has been fully investigated. We expect high-quality lunch parcels for our children.

Ninety primary school headteachers from across Bradford have written to the Secretary of State to express their disappointment in his ability to support teachers and pupils. School-age children in my constituency have some of the lowest social mobility rates in the country. The Government say that they have a plan to ensure that children catch up on the learning that they have lost, but there are currently only enough places on the national tutoring programme for one in every five disadvantaged pupils in England. Will the Minister increase this as a matter of urgency, and commit to publishing a fully funded plan to ensure that the most disadvantaged children do not fall even further behind? (910896)

Ensuring that no child suffers a loss to their education or damage to their long-term prospects as a consequence of the pandemic is a key priority of education policy. That is why we have secured £1 billion of catch-up funding from the Treasury; £350 million of that is for the national tutoring programme, and £650 million is being distributed to all schools across the country on the basis of £80 per pupil and £240 per pupil in special school settings. That money can be used to target the children who most need to catch up.

A headteacher in my constituency has been in touch to express real concern about Ofsted assessing schools when there are no agreed standards or established precedents that relate to education in lockdown, so may I urge the Schools Minister to engage closely with headteachers and Ofsted to ensure that any assessment process is fair to schools as they operate now, and reflects the hugely difficult circumstances to which they have been subjected? (910903)

Formal Ofsted inspections have been suspended until the summer term. What is happening is that Ofsted is engaged in monitoring visits for schools rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”, and having discussions about the quality of the curriculum and the challenges that schools are facing with remote education. We have set out clear expectations for what we expect schools to do with regard to remote education, including the fact that at key stage 1 there should be three hours of remote education, at key stage 2 four hours, and at key stages 3 and 4 five hours a day.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Erasmus, I have a vested interest in ensuring that British students across the country have access to the best international education programme possible, so two weeks ago I wrote a letter, which was signed by colleagues across the House, about the Turing scheme that is replacing Erasmus. I have yet to receive a response from Ministers. Although we welcome the Turing programme, it could be greatly improved to become a notable and truly beneficial exchange programme, so will the Secretary of State commit today to arranging a meeting with my colleagues and I to discuss this further? (910898)

We are very much looking forward to the APPG being rechristened the Turing APPG, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. I can confirm that the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group to see what more can be done to expand these truly great opportunities for all young people right across the United Kingdom to see the world and to learn from the experience of studying in so many institutions right across the globe.

Stockton South has some of the best teachers in the country, and they are working hard to ensure that youngsters who might lack the support and resources that they need at home are not left behind as a result of school closures. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that when schools reopen, deprived youngsters can catch up and still reach their full potential? (910905)

I echo my hon. Friend’s thanks to all teachers in Stockton South, and not only for the amazing work they did last term, but for what they are continuing to do. He is absolutely right to highlight children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why our covid catch-up fund is so incredibly important in helping them to catch up, and why our roll-out of 1.3 million laptops right across the country is so important in helping to support schools. The best thing that we can do is see all schools return at the earliest possible date, with children benefiting from being back in the classroom and learning directly from their teachers.

A really concerning new report from the National Union of Students has found that 69% of student renters are worried about not being able to meet their rental payments. With rent arrears building up, along with tuition fee debt in England, what additional support can be provided, and why not give more students access to universal credit and, therefore, the housing support that they really need? (910900)

We will always look at how best we can support students. We have announced an additional £20 million of hardship funding for students, to be administered through universities in England, and we will continue to keep that under review.

Many students have suffered as a result of inadequate teaching and pastoral care at their universities, in addition to unfair costs for accommodation that they are not even allowed to stay in. What action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Government are a voice for students, that they stand up for students and that they allow them to be compensated in some way by their universities when those universities fail them and let them down? (910907)

There can be no excuses when universities are not offering the type of remote teaching and educational support that is expected. That is why it is so critical that, where that remote teaching and support is not happening, students’ rights are upheld. We saw at the tail end of last year that students’ rights were upheld and universities had to redress that. That is the right approach. We recognise how important it is to support students, which is why we will continue to look at how best we can support them through programmes such as the hardship fund.

Ministers will have heard the concern across the House about the safety of special needs schools and nurseries. To reassure us, can they tell us what meetings they have had over the past two weeks with Public Health England about the evidence of transmission associated with special educational needs pupils, their parents and staff at those schools, and the pupils, parents and staff in nursery settings? What does that evidence tell us about transmission over the last two weeks? (910901)

We are in continual contact with Public Health England, through the Department, and we also meet early years representatives. I have been touring special schools virtually throughout. Our early years are vital years of education for the youngest, which they cannot get back, our special schools provide vital support for young people with disabilities, and alternative provision settings are vital for our most vulnerable. All those settings are usually smaller than other settings, which is why they have less of an impact on community transmission —it should be remembered that we closed schools to reduce community transmission—and why PHE continues to advise us that closing them is not needed to bring down the R number.

I thank all those teachers who are going over and beyond to ensure that their pupils can access education, virtual or otherwise. What measures is the Department taking to ensure that children can continue to go through the statementing process for educational needs while our schools are closed due to covid restrictions, and after they open? (910902)

We have kept our schools open to those with the most severe special needs and disabilities and those with an education, health and care plan. We continue to back up and support local authorities to improve their special educational needs and disabilities provision, to make sure that those young people who need an EHC plan can get one as soon as possible. We are working with councils all across the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary for bringing forward the independent review of children’s social care. I am hugely grateful that this important manifesto commitment did not find itself on the back burner given all the other challenges we face. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what he expects the review to achieve for those children in care or on the fringes of care? (910911)

This is something everyone in this House feels incredibly passionately about. I know through seeing at first hand, coming from a family with parents who fostered for many years, how important it is to get high-quality children’s social care right in this country. I want a real revolution to come out of this report, and I am incredibly pleased that Josh MacAlister has taken on this role to deliver the changes that I think Members on both sides of the House want. I have said quite clearly that I do not want him to hold back in tackling difficult issues. I want to see change, improvement and children’s lives transformed. By working on a cross-party basis, I believe that that is what we can deliver.

Unfortunately, that brings us to the end of the time for questions, due to a connection failure. I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.