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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 690: debated on Monday 1 March 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Learning Catch-up

What support his Department is providing to help children catch up on learning lost during the covid-19 outbreak. (912659)

What support his Department is providing to help children catch up on learning lost during the covid-19 outbreak. (912670)

Helping pupils make up learning is vital, which is why the Government have invested £1.7 billion in helping education settings boost pupils’ learning, including additional funding for tutoring, early language support and summer schools. We have appointed an education recovery commissioner to advise on this work.

Sadly, the impact of school closures over the past 12 months will be felt for a long time to come, with a gaping educational divide opening up as a result. I therefore very much welcome the Government’s intention to provide a catch-up programme over the summer, but will my right hon. Friend clarify how he proposes to target support to reach students who have fallen behind most over the past year—those who have been really affected by this lockdown?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The spectrum and range of children who are perhaps needing that extra support is broad and wide. That is why it has been so important to give schools the flexibility to target the funding at the children who are most in need of that support, regardless of their background. Showing confidence in teachers to be able to target that support is very important.

Children in areas of high deprivation, of whom, as my right hon. Friend knows, there are many across Stoke-on-Trent, have had less teaching time during the pandemic. Will he ensure that those children are prioritised, as we work to ensure that all children can catch up with their education?

Very much so. Let me take the opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a new free school, which will be built in his constituency, really boosting educational attainment for his constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South. He is right to say that we need a targeted approach to supporting students to catch up and to making sure that they do not miss out as a result of the pandemic.

Even before the pandemic, child poverty stood at more than 4 million, up more than 700,000 since Labour left office, and progress on narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and other students had stalled. What targets has the Secretary of State set to address those shocking failures?

We recognise that there is a broad impact on so many young people. We recognise that our work on closing the attainment gap between the richest and the poorest has been impacted as a result of the pandemic, which is why we are taking a targeted approach to our investments, looking at things such as catch up. That is why we have asked Sir Kevan Collins to look in detail at the actions that we can best take on helping children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, to catch up.

But just days from the Budget, there is still no commitment to keep the £20 uplift in universal credit, no sign that the Secretary of State will abandon the public sector pay freeze, and he has allocated just 43p per pupil per day to support catch up. Does he really believe that that is good enough, or will he stand up for children and families and tell the Chancellor that they must come first in the Budget?

We on the Conservative Benches believe passionately in driving up educational standards, because we recognise that for children, especially those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, that is the best way to give them the opportunities in life that we want to see every child have. That is why we have so passionately pursued that agenda for the past 11 years, and we will continue to pursue that agenda of raising standards for all children in all schools across the country. Our £1.7 billion package supporting children to catch up will make a real difference because it is targeted and evidence based, making sure that children will be supported to help them to get the very best as they come out of this lockdown and go back to school next week.

When the Department for Education previously delivered a programme of summer schools for disadvantaged students in 2013, it identified that only 50% of disadvantaged pupils who were invited actually attended, and the Education Endowment Foundation found particular difficulties with attendance in areas outside London. What specific measures is the Department taking to ensure that the most disadvantaged benefit from the catch-up programmes and summer schools on offer? Will the Department set out a timetable for publishing regular data about the progress in children’s outcomes as a direct result of the catch-up programme, and how will we use that data to adapt the programme to ensure transparency that the schemes are working and the money is being well spent?

We commissioned Renaissance Learning to look at the evidence and ensure that we are properly tracking how the money is being spent and the outcomes. My right hon. Friend raises a really important point about the summer schools programme. We want to see this money being used by schools right across the country. We do not want only children in London to benefit from this, but children in every part of the nation. Our regional schools commissioners will be working closely with multi-academy trusts, individual schools and local authorities to do everything we can to ensure that all schools take up this fantastic offer and that there is the widest possible participation in the scheme.

Sixth-Form Student Funding

This Government are committed to delivering a high-quality education for all students, which is why we are investing an extra £291 million in 16 to 19 education in 2021-22, in addition to the £400 million awarded in the 2019 spending review. This is the biggest injection of new money into 16 to 19-year-olds in a single year for over a decade.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but in reality the funding that she mentions does not scratch the surface after a decade of real-terms cuts. The cost of educating sixth-formers has risen and student numbers have ballooned, due to covid and demographics. As such, the rate increase will likely be entirely eaten up by inflation alone in the coming year. Will she finally commit to increasing the rate to at least £4,760—the level recommended by the Raise the Rate campaign, and supported by experts across the sector, including the Education Committee and Ofsted’s chief inspector?

It is important to spell out that the money we are talking about is not the only money that goes into further education. As well as the base rate, we have invested another £7 billion this academic year to ensure that there is a place for everybody in education and training, and an extra £83 million in capital funding to ensure that we can accommodate the demographic increase in 16 to 19-year-olds that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. On top of that, we have £1.5 billion in capital funding, T-level funding going up to £500 million a year and more funding for apprenticeships and skills boot camps. There is a whole plethora of additional funding, not just the base rate.

Covid-19: Financial Support for Students

What steps his Department is taking to support university students facing financial hardship as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (912661)

What steps his Department is taking to support university students facing financial hardship as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (912678)

We are making available an additional £70 million of student hardship funding this financial year. This money is in addition to the £256 million of assisting higher education funding that providers can draw upon in the academic year to support students in hardship.

I thank my hon. Friend for doing a Zoom call with my Kensington students and those at Imperial College. A number of students raised concerns that they were not getting value for money out of their tuition and accommodation during the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend address those concerns?

This has been a really challenging and difficult time for students. The Government expect that quality is maintained, and the Office for Students has been clear that all higher education providers must continue to comply with the registration conditions relating to quality and standards. Accommodation providers are autonomous, but the Government urge all large providers to have students’ interests at heart and provide refunds; we thank the plethora of universities that have already done so, including—but not limited to— Nottingham, Sheffield, London School of Economics, Bath and Essex, to name a few.

There is a huge issue with students being legally unable to return to accommodation that they are legally obliged to pay for. The Prime Minister has said that he will look into this. Indeed, when I questioned him about the matter on 22 February, he said:

“We will do whatever we can to support them,”

and we will,

“help them to get compensation.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 656.]

Can the Minister put some flesh on the bones about what the Prime Minister meant when he talked about compensation for students who are legally unable to return to accommodation that they have to pay for?

As I have said, this has been a difficult time for students. There are students who are having to pay twice and may be being charged by their parents. That is exactly why we announced £70 million of additional financial hardship funding on top of the £256 million. I urge any student listening to this to go to their university and get the support available to help them at this time.

The fantastic Staffordshire University is in my constituency of Stoke-on-Trent Central, and since the start of the pandemic I have received several messages from students and constituents attending the university with concerns about their financial position. Many of them were placed on furlough and have experienced reduced hours, while also being locked into private tenancy agreements throughout this academic year; they are therefore unable to benefit from the rent reductions offered by Staffordshire University to students living in on-site accommodation.

What consideration has my hon. Friend given to students in similar positions across the country? Would she consider altering the loan available to students whose household income has been affected significantly during this difficult time?

My first message to students would be to go to their university and seek hardship funding, because we have made available an additional £70 million that needs to be spent by April to support students, including international and postgraduate students. Any student who is not receiving the maximum loan but whose household income has changed by 15% may be able to get additional support. They should fill in an income circumstances form for the Student Loans Company and get the support available to them.

Many students have lost the part-time work they rely on and their financial concerns are helping to fuel their mental health crisis. The Scottish Government have given students studying in Scotland the equivalent of £78 per student; the Welsh Labour Government have given students studying in Wales the equivalent of £302 per student. The UK Government have given students studying in England the equivalent of £45 per student. Why do this Government put such a low value on the welfare of students in England?

Quite to the contrary, we put an extremely important value on the welfare of our students. That is exactly why one of our first actions in this pandemic was to allow more flexibility with the £256 million that can support student hardship, and we have recently given an additional £70 million that needs to be spent in this financial year. We are keeping all this under review, but our priority has been getting additional money into the pockets of students who may be facing financial hardship right here and right now.

The pandemic is affecting many part-time opportunities and that is having an impact on international students who are struggling to make ends meet. I think we were all disturbed to see the images of international students queuing outside a food bank in east London.

The Scottish Government have expanded hardship support to specifically include international students. The Minister has mentioned the hardship support available from her Government, but Universities UK reports that international students are not coming forward for it because they have concerns about how this might impact their visa or immigration status. Can she confirm that work has been done so that these students can come forward and it will not impact their immigration status?

Hardship funding in England has always been applicable to international students. We have worked hard to get that message out there; I recently wrote a letter specifically addressed to international students. We continue to disseminate that message. The hon. Member is quite right: it will have no implications for their visas if they choose to take that money.

School Breakfast Provision

It is important that pupils have access to a healthy breakfast meal to enhance their learning potential. That is why we are investing up to £38 million in the national school breakfast programme, which is providing breakfast meals in up to 2,450 schools in disadvantaged areas across the country.

I thank the Minister for her response, but unfortunately the Government’s current school breakfast programme only provides for 7% of schools that meet the Government’s deprivation criteria, and it ends in July. Pre-pandemic, up to 2 million children were starting their school day without a breakfast. My School Breakfast Bill would extend and scale up provision via funds from the soft drinks levy. Please can she ask the Chancellor to implement my Bill and get breakfast into the Budget?

I completely agree that a healthy and nutritious breakfast sets a child up for a learning day. We have extended our programme until July this year and we are considering options for breakfast provision beyond that date. We are engaging with the market to help develop those options, and we expect to be able to say more very soon.

Covid-19: Pupils Receiving Free School Meals

What recent assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the attainment of pupils in receipt of free school meals. (912663)

Our education recovery package supports pupils most in need of catch-up support, including pupils receiving free school meals. The hon. Member asks about assessments we have conducted on the effects of the pandemic on the attainment of pupils. We have commissioned a study to assess the progress of pupils during this academic year, including groups such as pupils receiving free school meals. Initial findings from the study of 400,000 reading and maths assessments were published last week.

May I wish you and the House a happy Saint David’s day, Mr Speaker? The Secretary of State has said that no child’s prospects should be blighted by the pandemic and that he would not be timid in his responses, but earlier he sounded vague when he was asked for specifics. The schools Minister has had the job for a decade, so he should not need to outsource his answer to consultants. What specific interventions are being planned by Ministers to target those poor pupils for whom the pandemic has been an extinction level event for their education?

The hon. Member will not find anyone in this House more committed to closing the attainment gap caused by the pandemic than this team of Education Ministers and this Secretary of State. Last year, we committed £1 billion to help all students catch up on their lost education, including a £350 million national tutoring programme for the most disadvantaged and most in need. Last month, the Prime Minister announced a further £300 million of catch-up funding, and last week we increased it by a further £400 million. That is £1.7 billion in total committed to ensuring that no pupil will suffer long-term damage to their prospects as a result of the pandemic.

Covid-19: Education Outcomes

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, what assessment he has made of the effect of the covid-19 outbreak on education outcomes. (912664)

This questioner has withdrawn, but we still have the substantive question to the Secretary of State.

As the Minister for School Standards set out, we have commissioned a study to assess the progress of pupils this academic year, initial findings from which were published last week. That study has informed the development of our £1.7 billion investment to give education settings support to boost our children’s education.

Those listening to the Secretary of State’s answers in this session so far will fear previous failures being repeated. He talks about a targeted approach, but in the next breath says it is up to teachers to decide where those budgets are targeted.

Once again, we have got the Secretary of State showing a complete lack of leadership, which leads to funds being unspent and his initiatives failing. We have seen it on exams, we have seen it on testing, we have seen it on school returns, we have seen it on university student wellbeing, and we have seen it on BTECs. We need a Secretary of State capable of providing the clarity, the leadership and the ambition required to support a generation of schoolchildren. If he cannot, will he please step aside and let us get a Secretary of State who can?

That was a very well read question by the hon. Member. What we are doing is a combination of things, because we on this side of the House understand that teachers will have an acute understanding of those children who have suffered most as a result of being out of the classroom. We have understood that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are most helped by small group tuition. We have created the national tutoring programme—a specifically targeted programme—and all the evidence points to the simple fact that by taking this approach, we have the biggest impact in terms of helping children catch up with lost learning.

The hon. Gentleman probably has little interest or regard for facts or evidence, and that is probably evidenced by the fact that that is how the Labour party came up with its last manifesto. But we do care about evidence. Actually, the evidence shows that by having these targeted interventions, yet giving support to teachers to be able to help children who need it most, we will be able to help the maximum number of children.

Children in Asylum Accommodation: Remote Learning

What support the Government have provided to ensure that children living in asylum accommodation with limited or no wi-fi during covid-19 lockdowns are able to access remote learning. (912665)

The Get Help with Technology programme is helping disadvantaged children in England without a connection at home, including those living in asylum accommodation, to access the internet. We have delivered more than 60,000 4G wireless routers and are partnering with the UK’s leading mobile operators to provide free data uplifts.

Wi-fi is not a standard feature in asylum accommodation. As more and more learning is done online, even outside of the pandemic, is the Minister prepared to work with counterparts in the Home Office to ensure that all children in the asylum system are able to access digital learning opportunities, so that they do not fall behind and are able to integrate as quickly as possible?

Yes, of course. The Home Office is in charge of the asylum seeker estate, and it does ensure that wi-fi is available. In terms of schools generally, as of 15 February, more than 1 million laptops and tablets have been delivered to schools and local authorities. It is one of the biggest procurement exercises of its kind, with 1 million computers built to order and shipped to Britain, with software added before being delivered. The process started last April, and throughout the summer and autumn we continued to order more and more computers, as we prepared for future contingencies.

School Facilities

We have announced the first 50 schools in the new school rebuilding programme as part of our commitment to rebuild 500 schools over the next decade. We have allocated £9.5 billion since 2015 to maintain and improve school buildings, including an additional £560 million for the last financial year, and we have committed a further £1.8 billion for 2021-22.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer, especially regarding improvements. Hastings High School in Burbage, a popular school in my constituency, made an application for urgent capital support funding for its perimeter fence, which it deems a safeguarding issue. Unfortunately, it was declined. What advice would he give to schools applying for that fund, and will he meet me to discuss Hastings High School’s issue and whether we can take this forward?

I am not familiar with the fence in question, but I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it in more detail and work with him and officials to see whether there is anything we can do to ensure that when the school bids for the next round, the bid is in the best possible position to succeed.

Pupils’ Return to Schools: Lateral Flow Testing

What assessment he has made of the ability of parents to carry out lateral flow covid-19 testing on their children to support the return of pupils to schools as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (912667)

Rapid testing using lateral flow devices will support the return to face-to-face education by helping to identify people who are infectious but do not have any symptoms. For secondary school staff and pupils, we are moving to a home-testing model, which will be rolled out once pupils have had three onsite tests.

The charity Parentkind has expressed concerns about tests being missed or messed up and their limited effectiveness even when used correctly. What happens to those who refuse to take the tests, and when will clear guidance be issued on how to administer the tests and report the results?

I appreciate the hon. Lady’s highlighting this issue, which is an area of concern for us all. That is why there is a process of three asymptomatic tests that are to be rolled out at the start of the term. The guidance on how to do it has already been with schools for quite a considerable period. We are also asking all schools to maintain an asymptomatic testing station onsite, so that if a child has, for some reason, not been able to take a test at home, they can get a test under supervision at school, to make sure that we capture and support all children.

Technology in Schools: Learning Legacy

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that new uses of technology and the Government’s provision of additional computers to schools leave a legacy for future learning. (912668)

Technology has been essential to teaching remotely, and I pay credit to the entire education workforce for doing this. In the longer term, it has the potential to improve pupil outcomes and operational efficiency. We are building on our significant investment in devices, training and digital services to create a lasting digital legacy.

What work has my right hon. Friend’s Department undertaken to look at using virtual platforms, with which children are now familiar, to set up international meetings to help improve foreign language skills and knowledge of different cultures?

My hon. Friend raises an important opportunity with this new access to technology—access to technology that so many children have benefited from —and making sure that it lasts for a long time. We have invested £4.3 million in supporting schools to get on to new digital platforms, and we very much hope that they really take the opportunity to use these platforms to get the very best for their students.

If I may, however, I will also give a little plug for the new Turing scheme. The Turing scheme will not be about visiting people digitally, but—and this is hard to imagine, as it seems such a long time since we were able to enjoy foreign travel—about enabling children to visit different destinations right around the globe and to learn languages in person, as well as through a digital platform.

Covid-19: Safety of Early Years and Specialist Settings

What steps he is taking to help keep staff in (a) early years settings, (b) special schools and (c) alternative provision safe during the covid-19 outbreak. (912671)

All settings must comply with health and safety law. They should follow our guidance so that systems of control are in place to reduce the risk of transmission for pupils and staff, and we have bespoke guidance for special schools, alternative provision and early years settings. Furthermore, to keep covid out of the classrooms and other settings, we have expanded testing to schools, pre-schools and nurseries.

Covid cases in early years providers have nearly doubled since the first week of January to the highest level so far seen during this pandemic, and many nursery workers and childminders have been understandably worried about continuing to look after all children in lockdown, without a proper explanation of why this is safe and without a clear plan to ensure that providers can access proper mass testing and the personal protective equipment they need. Why have the Government done so little to reassure them?

The earliest years are the most crucial point of a child’s development, and we know that caring for our youngest children cannot be done remotely. The current evidence continues to show that pre-school children under the age of five are less susceptible to covid and unlikely to have a driving role in transmission. All the data that we base decisions on is public, and further scientific evidence was shared just last week.

Ten days ago, there were five covid cases in different nursery settings in Warwick and Leamington—the worst for many months. If the Government want to keep early years open, how does the Minister think nurseries can remain viable without mass testing, FFP3-grade PPE or, indeed, the financial support that was available in the first lockdown?

This Government are committed to supporting the early years, and we will be spending about £3.6 billion on early years funding this year, but to provide extra safety, we are rolling out home test kits for all those in nurseries and pre-schools—the staff in nurseries and pre-schools—from 22 March.

Social distancing is impossible in early years settings and special schools, where staff often provide close contact care, and it has been a nightmare for them to operate at high capacity in lockdown, with many staff off sick or self-isolating. Vaccinating school staff over half-term and prioritising key workers such as early years staff, once the most vulnerable have been jabbed, would have relieved this pressure, protected staff and helped to keep children learning, so why did the Government miss this open goal?

The top priority for vaccines must be to protect those most at risk of dying or being hospitalised by this hideous disease. It also involves protecting those who are caring for those most at risk. That could include, for example, a carer of a clinically extremely vulnerable child, but it would not necessarily include everyone who is working in an early years setting.

National Education Union Recovery Plan

Our priority is ensuring that no child is left behind as a result of the pandemic, and that is why we have prioritised the return of children to school and why we are providing a package of £700 million to support children and young people who need it most to catch up on lost education, on top of the £1 billion package launched last June. We are committed to continuing to work with school leaders and unions, including the NEU, to develop our longer-term plans.

There has been a worrying pattern during this pandemic where, time and again, the Government have ignored the science, closing schools too late and opening them too early. Many scientists are warning that the Government’s measures for schools are not strong enough on their own to protect pupils and staff against the risks of airborne transmission. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended a phased return to schools, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have listened. With this Government forging ahead regardless, so much more must be done to tackle the critical issues of PPE, adequate ventilation in classrooms, special educational needs and disability, and vaccination. We need to protect our key workers. Has the Minister got a grip on that?

Every step of the way we follow the science. We are focused on ensuring that we do everything we can to keep covid out of the classroom and minimise the risk of transmission. That is why schools are going to enormous lengths to increase hygiene levels and ensure that pupils wash their hands frequently throughout the day, and why there are bubbles so that pupils do not mix unnecessarily. There is increased ventilation. There are one-way systems, staggered lunch and break times, face masks in secondary schools, and we are testing all staff and secondary school pupils twice a week. As the Chief Medical Officer has said, the best place for pupils is in school, as that is best for their wellbeing and education.

Education for Children with SEND

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities receive a quality education. (912674)

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that children with special educational needs and disabilities receive a quality education. (912677)

The pandemic has been especially hard for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and their families. We have increased high-needs funding by £780 million this year, with another £730 million next year—a 24% increase. Our SEND review is well under way, and focuses on ensuring that the system supports and delivers for every child.

What particular educational support is being provided to children with dyslexia through the covid-19 pandemic restrictions?

That is an excellent question. We know that for children with special education needs, including dyslexia, the impact of school closures may have been greater than for other children. The additional £700 million of recovery funding announced last week, on top of the £1 billion already provided, can be used by schools for extra support for those with SEND. Of the 33 providers on the national tutoring programme, 26 have specific expertise in supporting children with special educational needs.

I know from the three special schools in my constituency what an amazing job the teachers do to support children and young people with complex disabilities, as well as special educational needs. Will the Minister confirm that all teachers in those settings are entitled to a covid jab? What else can the Government do to support schools to be covid-secure?

I thank all schools, especially those special schools that have helped to care for vulnerable children throughout the pandemic. Attendance has risen. We have provided bespoke advice on testing children with special educational needs, and we will provide families of all pupils with access to home testing, including those with special educational needs. That will help to keep covid out of the classroom. Where a teacher is supporting a clinically extremely vulnerable child, as the care provider that teacher may also be entitled to a vaccine, and those decisions are made locally.

Brain Injury: Specialist Education Support

What estimate he has made of the number of pupils under the age of 18 who are in receipt of specialist education support as a result of experiencing a brain injury in the last 12 months. (912675)

The Department does not collect specific data on brain injuries. A pupil’s acquired brain injury could manifest in many different ways, and support should be tailored to their learning barriers, irrespective of the diagnosis. The SEND code of practice asks schools and colleges to address pupils’ individual educational needs, regardless of their condition.

Happy St David’s day, Mr Speaker.

I really find that a disappointing answer. There will be children going back to school after several weeks who will have had brain injuries of various kinds. If the Department does not even keep statistics on them, it is probably likely that lots of headteachers will not even know whether their children have had acquired brain injuries. Sometimes, the results of a brain injury can look remarkably like being naughty or unco-operative in school, and kids end up being excluded despite the fact that they have a medical condition. The special educational needs code still does not even mention brain injury. How are we ever going to take this seriously if we do not even gather the information and make sure that those children who really need support get it? It is often referred to as a hidden disability; well, it is completely hidden from the Minister herself.

No, the Government take brain injury and the devastating impact that it can have on a child’s life especially seriously, but the important thing is to make sure that each child gets the support that they need for their particular circumstances. That is why the SEND system is specifically designed to get the right support to each individual child, and that is what we are working on through the SEND review. I am very happy to discuss with the hon. Member exactly how we are working on making sure that each child gets the support that they need for how the brain injury manifests for that child.

International Study Opportunities

The Government are committed to international study opportunities. We have demonstrated that through our introduction of the Turing scheme and our recent update to the international education strategy. The new Turing scheme is backed by £110 million and provides funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges around the world, starting in September this year.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that response. Like him, I very much welcome the widening of partnerships and cultural discovery that will be possible under the Turing scheme, but will he say how he will ensure that the scheme also widens access, including for young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds?

We are putting in place additional support for students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to help cover the cost of travel to those destinations. It is vital that, as we construct the Turing scheme and we invite new partners into it, we do so such that it is a brilliant way of creating opportunities for children of every single background to study abroad and understand the benefits of working collaboratively on the international stage.

Post-16 Education and Training

As set out in the “Skills for Jobs” White Paper, we are implementing an ambitious reform programme that will revolutionise technical education in this country. The White Paper is focused on giving people the skills they need in a flexible way that suits them so that they can get great jobs in sectors that the economy needs, which will also boost this country’s productivity.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s answer. The proposals set out in the further education White Paper are extremely welcome. In Suffolk and Norfolk, the colleges, the chambers of commerce and the local enterprise partnership are keen to get on with putting these plans into practice so as to ensure both that there are exciting and well-paid jobs available locally for young people, and that our region is well placed to take advantage of the great opportunities in the energy, logistics and agritech sectors. I will be most grateful if my hon. Friend sets out the timetable and the criteria for selecting skills for jobs trailblazers, and if she can confirm that a bid from our region will be welcome.

I am delighted to hear that there is such enthusiasm in Suffolk and Norfolk for engaging with and helping to implement our flagship reforms. We will run an open process to select the trailblazing local areas in which the first local skills improvement plans will be developed. We will certainly welcome a bid from Suffolk and Norfolk, championed no doubt by my hon. Friends the Members for Waveney (Peter Aldous), and for Ipswich (Tom Hunt). Further information, including the criteria for selection, will be announced very shortly, so there is not long to wait.

Safety of School Students and Staff

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the safety of students and staff when schools re-open as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (912681)

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure the safety of students and staff when schools re-open as covid-19 lockdown restrictions are eased. (912683)

The decision to return to full attendance is based on a balance of risk—on protecting our NHS while protecting students from the harms of missing education. Our decision is evidence-based. We have introduced safety measures, including testing and the extended use of face coverings, alongside other systems of control to minimise transmission of covid.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Having spoken to a number of heads this morning, I know that schools across Warrington South are busy preparing for the return of all their pupils a week today. I know that he will join me in paying tribute to the efforts of teachers and heads. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that his Department has provided timely guidance for school leaders, and taken every precaution to ensure the safety of both staff and students on their return?

I would very much like to join my hon. Friend in thanking teachers, headteachers and all staff for all the work they are doing to be able to welcome back all children to school from 8 March—just next week. He is right to highlight the importance of making sure that everyone is working and being educated in a safe and secure environment. That is why we published clear guidance when the Prime Minister set out his road map on Monday last week, and why we put extra precautions in place, such as testing for all pupils in secondary schools, and staff and workforce testing for all primary schools as well.

Teachers across Sevenoaks and Swanley have done a brilliant job at keeping schools open throughout the pandemic. However, many are worried about a full return. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to share with headteachers the evidence on the low infection risk in schools, so that they are fully equipped to reassure teachers that schools are safe?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight that concern, which is why, when we published our guidance on Monday last week, we published alongside it summarised data and evidence from the Office for National Statistics and Public Health England, making it freely available. It is right to make sure that all school environments are safe. That is why we are taking extra steps to make sure that testing is in place in secondary schools, providing confidence for children, parents, the whole education community, and the wider community.

Topical Questions

Next Monday, schools and colleges will welcome all pupils in England back to face-to-face education. I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to teachers, support staff, parents and, most importantly, every single child for their tremendous efforts during lockdown. We have a robust testing regime in place to support reopening and reduced transmission, in order to help pupils catch up on missed learning. We have also announced a £700 million catch-up package, which builds on the £1 billion package we announced just over six months ago.

Extending the school day after covid should involve more than core curriculum subjects, as many pupils have already commented that they do not want a longer day at school to catch up. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that subjects such as music, sport, drama, art and cookery to name a few, plus learning skills such as volunteering and work experience, which young people often cannot fit into the existing curriculum, should be included in an extended day to help young people to develop, rather than just catch up?

We have asked Sir Kevan Collins to look at a whole range of different options, and to consult widely with the sector, parents and children on what is best. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of enrichment in education. Yes, English, maths and the sciences are absolutely vital, but there are so many other skills and activities that also need to be part of a child’s learning and what they get from school.

Last week, the Secretary of State confirmed that 120,000 pupils have been reached by the national tutoring programme, but it has reached fewer than 10% of all children on free school meals. Given that we know that the need for additional tutoring support will extend to all pupils on free school meals, and many more besides, how do the Government have the brass neck to claim that they are doing all they can to tackle disadvantage and are being ambitious for children—our country’s future—when their flagship scheme is reaching only a fraction of those pupils who need additional support?

Our flagship scheme—both the national tutoring programme and the academic mentors—will reach 750,000 disadvant-aged pupils once it is fully rolled out. The Government are absolutely determined to ensure that all children are able to catch up, particularly the most disadvantaged pupils in our country.

Following the welcome confirmation that additional money will be allocated to school building repairs, will my right hon. Friend reassure teachers and parents that Orchards Academy and West Kingsdown Primary School will be prioritised? I know from my visits how urgently the repair is needed, and that the money provided to date has not been sufficient to cover all the work. (912722)

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this issue, and I would be very happy to meet her to discuss this important work. We have an ambitious plan to upgrade our school estate. We have seen the roll-out of that, and even the shadow Education Secretary, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), has benefited from the Government’s investment in education—I am looking forward to the warm words of thanks that will no doubt be winging their way to me. I certainly hope that it is not just the shadow Education Secretary but my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) who benefits.

According to UCAS data, the number of EU students applying to study in Scotland has fallen by 40% since Brexit, with Department for Education figures predicting a 57% drop in EU student numbers. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to promote our universities and attract more EU students to study in the UK?

Obviously, Scottish universities are benefiting from bringing in additional fee income as a result of the changes that have happened. We have set out, as part of our international education strategy, a very ambitious plan to benefit all universities right across the United Kingdom. I would be very happy to send the hon. Lady a copy of the plan. Hopefully, she will see the real benefits of being part of the United Kingdom: we can market on a global level—not just in the European Union, but right across the world—to attract international students.

Diolch yn fawr, and dydd gŵyl Dewi hapus, Mr Speaker. I put on record my thanks to the Department for Education’s ministerial team for all the work that they have done, especially in my Heywood and Middleton constituency, to put the rights of vulnerable children first during the pandemic, but may I ask for an assurance that they will continue to champion the rights of children as we leave the pandemic? (912724)

The Government are fully committed to protecting and promoting children’s rights; it is such an important issue. We strongly believe in the principles laid down in the UN convention on the rights of the child, which a Conservative Government ratified 30 years ago, in 1991. We regularly report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on the great work that we have been doing across the UK to implement the UNCRC and to promote children’s rights.

Students who face additional barriers to learning often receive a bursary to help them overcome those barriers. If they apply for universal credit, the bursary is not counted as income—that is, unless they receive the Scottish Government care experience bursary. Will the Secretary of State speak to his counterparts in the Department for Work and Pensions to right this wrong, which I am sure must be an oversight, so that care experience students are not given support from the Scottish Government only to have it taken away again by the UK Government? (912720)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this point. I am happy to ask my office to get in touch with her for details, so that we can highlight this to the Department for Work and Pensions.

The Schools Minister has said that pupils wearing masks on the school estate is a matter of advisory guidance. If a pupil, or a parent acting on their behalf, objects to complying with their headteacher’s wish for pupils to wear a mask, are we not in danger of creating mask anarchy? Enormous pressure is being put on headteachers in Harlow because of the confusion, including Vic Goddard, the headteacher of Harlow Passmores School. Is it not better to come down firmly on one side or another, and provide clear, definitive regulations to help teaching staff? (912725)

We have said clearly that we strongly recommend that students in secondary schools wear face masks or face coverings in classrooms where it is not possible to keep a social distance between pupils. We have also said, for quite a number of months, that in communal areas of a secondary school, where it is not possible to maintain a social distance, staff, adults and students should also wear face masks. Face coverings are largely intended to protect others against the spread of infection, because they cover the nose and mouth, which are the main confirmed sources of transmission of the virus.

Headteachers in Warwick and Leamington tell me that their pupil premium funding is being slashed. Given the huge increases in poverty resulting from the pandemic, why has the Minister decided to base pupil premium calculations on the number of children receiving free school meals in October 2020, rather than in January 2021, as would be standard practice? (912721)

Most national funding formula elements are based on the October census. The pupil premium is based on Ever 6, so any child who has been eligible for free school meals at any time in the past six years qualifies for the pupil premium. Changes in one particular year do not therefore make up a large proportion of pupil premium eligibility. On top of that, we announced last week an additional £300 million recovery premium, which is based on eligibility for free school meals. The October 2020 census will ensure that most schools will receive more money, and overall we expect the pupil premium to rise as a consequence of that census from £2.4 billion to £2.5 billion.

On Friday, I spoke to two brilliant maintained nursery schools in my constituency. These schools are vital to families in South Normanton and Pinxton, but they are struggling without a sustainable financial future. Could my hon. Friend the Minister commit to pressuring the Treasury to give these schools the certainty that they need? (912731)

Maintained nursery schools often do a fantastic job, especially with children from disadvantaged backgrounds or with special educational needs, and they will continue to receive supplementary funding in the next financial year. The Government remain committed to long-term funding of maintained nursery schools, and we are considering how to ensure that we give those maintained nursery schools a long-term picture of their funding.

The Home Office announced in October a joint review with the Department for Education on how immigration status and no recourse to public funds interacted with free school meals and other education entitlements. What is the status of that review? What conclusions has it reached so far? When is it expected to be complete? (912726)

The right hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this. The Department made the decision to extend access to free school meals to these children during the pandemic. I would be happy to meet him to discuss all this in greater detail. That review is reaching the final stages of conclusion, but we have not yet been able to report. As soon as we do, we will inform the House.

I have heard directly from providers such as Little Angels and the Westminster Nursery School in Crewe about the extra cost of operating as a result of covid, in what is already a difficult financial situation for the sector. What additional funding might we expect for early years providers, to help them play their role in supporting catch-up after the lockdown period? (912733)

On top of the £3.6 billion that we are planning to spend on early entitlements this year, there is the catch-up and recovery programme. That includes the amazing Nuffield early language intervention—NELI—scheme, which has already been adopted by 40% of reception classes across the country. The new recovery money that we announced last week includes another £10 million for early years projects, and I can tell the House more details about those very soon.

There have been repeated calls from the Labour party, teaching unions and others to vaccinate teachers before schools reopen fully, but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears. If teachers fall ill or there are class closures due to covid transmission, will Ministers take personal responsibility and do the honourable thing, having precipitated further chaos and disruption to our children’s education? (912727)

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has now confirmed that an age-based approach remains the most effective way of reducing death and hospitalisation from covid-19. More than 20 million vaccines have already been given—I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not congratulate the Government on that magnificent achievement—but modelling confirms that the speed of vaccine deployment is the most effective and important factor. The JCVI’s view is that targeting occupational groups will be more complex to deliver, and may slow down the vaccine programme. Keeping the operation simple and easy to deliver is key to the rapid deployment of the vaccine.

I was interested to read the recent report entitled “Back to School—and After” by the Institute of Economic Affairs, which outlines a number of policies that would help to resolve critical issues facing our schools. Summer holidays are a key area, and it appears that they prove counterproductive for pupils, leading to a reduction in learning. I wonder whether the Minister would kindly look at the proposal to restructure the school year to reduce the length of summer holidays—a policy that will greatly benefit pupils and parents. (912736)

My hon. Friend raises an important matter. We have asked Sir Kevan Collins to look across a full and broad range of ways of giving children a boost, not just to catch up on any learning that they have lost but more fundamentally, to make major changes to how we drive educational attainment over a generation and more. All of this is something that Sir Kevan will look at.

The unionlearn fund has provided access to skills for over 200,000 workers, many of whom previously had few or no qualifications. Will the Secretary of State reconsider the decision to scrap that highly successful programme and fund it through the national skills programme. (912728)

I welcome the reopening of schools and the long awaited introduction of school testing, but, with parental consent required, some schools cannot test up to half of their pupils, putting their peers and families at avoidable risk. Given the importance of school testing, should it not be opt out rather than opt in, ensuring that a far greater number of pupils are tested while retaining parents right to choose? (912729)

We give clear guidance, and we expect parents to give permission to the school to allow secondary school pupils to be tested twice a week. This is an important initiative that helps to minimise the risk of transmission in the secondary school estate. After the first three tests, home testing kits will be sent to homes with pupils, and we hope that the twice-weekly testing of pupils will continue for the foreseeable future.

We now go to Amy Callaghan. Can I say how pleased I am to see Amy? Welcome back—it really is good to see you.

A heartfelt thank you to everyone who wished me well during my recent illness.

The UK Government’s decision to withdraw from Erasmus+ has far-reaching consequences, including for the third sector. Can the Minister guarantee that under the Government’s new Turing scheme, charity funding will be matched to that of Erasmus?

Mr Speaker, I join you and, I am sure, all Members of the House in welcoming the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan) back and wishing her the very best.

The Turing scheme offers young people and universities an amazing opportunity to explore amazing opportunities right around the globe, far broader and greater than the Erasmus scheme. I very much hope that universities and the wider education sector—including colleges and schools, which also have access to the Turing scheme as a result of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020—in Scotland as well as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will really be able to take advantage of this brilliant opportunity. As I say, I wish the hon. Lady the very best.

I suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.