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Topical Questions

Volume 690: debated on Monday 1 March 2021

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.