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Volume 693: debated on Monday 26 April 2021

The Secretary of State was asked—

Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

What steps his Department is taking to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. (914719)

What steps his Department is taking to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. (914748)

The best place for vulnerable children and those with special educational needs is at school. That is why we kept schools open throughout the pandemic. The high needs budget has grown by £1.5 billion in two years, and £42 million has been made available for specialist organisations to support children with special educational needs.

During my campaign in 2019, I became aware that parents of children with special educational needs in Blyth Valley were very concerned about the lack of educational provision for their children. I am delighted that plans are now well under way for the opening of a new special educational needs school in Blyth on the site of the old Princess Louise First School, in an area well known to a lot of my constituents. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that this much-needed facility will be available as quickly as possible for these children, who so desperately need the additional support and resources that it will offer?

I join my hon. Friend in recognising the important role of this new free school, led by the Prosper Learning Trust. It will make a real impact on so many children in his constituency, and I look forward to working closely with him and with the new school to ensure that we deliver the very best special educational needs education in his constituency.

The all-party parliamentary group for special educational needs and disabilities heard some very moving and sometimes concerning personal experiences from young people about the impact of the pandemic on them. I know that schools and local authorities, including in Buckinghamshire, worked incredibly hard to provide the best services they could, but could my right hon. Friend reassure the House that help and funding will be made available specifically to support the mental health of young people with SEND as part of the recovery from the pandemic?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight some of the challenges that young people suffer, especially in the area of mental health. That is why, just a short while ago, we announced extra provision and extra money and resources to support children in schools and make sure they have the very best mental health, and we are supporting schools in doing that.

Lost Learning: Covid-19

What support his Department is providing to help children catch up on learning lost during the covid-19 outbreak. (914720)

What support his Department is providing to help children catch up on learning lost during the covid-19 outbreak. (914749)

Helping pupils to make up learning is vital. That is why this Government have invested £1.7 billion to provide support to help pupils get back on track as they return to school.

From its birth in Bolton to its national roll-out, Tutor The Nation has connected schools in more challenging areas to carefully vetted volunteers, supported by professional tutors working for free. Unfortunately, Tutor The Nation is unqualified to participate in the national tutoring programme. What support can the Secretary of State’s kind Department provide to Tutor The Nation, to give children across the UK the same opportunities that we are enjoying in Bolton?

The national tutoring programme is making great progress in supporting so many children right around the country. I am certainly happy to look into Tutor The Nation in greater detail, to see whether there is more we can do to work closely with it, to ensure that we are able to continue with the great expansion of the national tutoring programme across all constituencies.

As we support vulnerable and disadvantaged children in returning to the classroom, ensuring that they have routines and structures in place to help them reach their potential will be essential. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot overestimate the importance of promoting behaviour and discipline in schools in our ambition to give every child a quality education?

We all know how important it is that we create calm, positive and good environments for children to flourish in, and strong behaviour and discipline policies have been the hallmark of being able to do that. It is particularly important for children from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds to ensure that we create the type of environment in schools that we want and expect to see right across the country.

The national tutoring programme is reaching only one in six pupils on free school meals, and changes to the school census date mean that schools are also losing out on thousands of pounds of pupil premium funding for those students. Will the Secretary of State now come clean and publish his Department’s full financial analysis of the funding lost to schools from this pupil premium stealth cut?

The hon. Lady forever moans and complains about the resources—the extra resources—that we have been putting into schools. Just a short time ago, we unveiled a £14.4 billion expansion of funding into secondary schools.[Official Report, 16 June 2021, Vol. 697, c. 2MC.] On top of that, we have outlined a further £1.7 billion that is going to support schools in helping to ensure that children are able to catch up having been away. We continue to make those investments and to make that difference.

So are headteachers moaning when they say that the pupil premium stealth cut means that they will not be able to pay for speech and language therapy, or a teaching assistant, or additional small group sessions? One head told me that they lose out more on pupil premium cuts than they receive in catch-up funding. This is not a Government that are serious about catch-up. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that no school will be worse off as a result of his changes to the pupil premium?

This Government are delivering real increases for schools right across the board. We are delivering an extra £1.7 billion in support to schools to ensure that they are able to help children to catch up. That is what we are doing. That is the difference we are making through schemes such as the national tutoring programme. This is making a real impact on children’s lives. We are proud of that and we will continue to drive it forward.

While I strongly support the Government’s summer holiday activities programme, there is a risk that disadvantaged pupils may be less likely to attend. Extending the school day with proper buy-in from parents and pupils makes it easier to engage disadvantaged pupils who are already through the school’s gate. All the evidence suggests that extending the school day has beneficial effects, including increasing educational attainment by an additional two months, and Sheffield Hallam University has said that it generates £4.5 million from improved educational attainment. Will my right hon. Friend support extending the school day, and can he confirm whether the Government have conducted any modelling to calculate the potential cost of an extended school day in England?

My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that we want to ensure that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will be among the key beneficiaries of any changes and further interventions we make to ensure that children are able to catch up. One of those areas, which it is right to look at, is an extended school day and how we ensure that children from all backgrounds can benefit from being in school longer. That is why we have asked Sir Kevan Collins to look at this with us. We are doing extensive modelling on this whole area, looking at a whole range of different options, not just on the time in a school day, but targeting schemes such as the National Tutoring Programme as well as supporting teachers in their professional development and continuing to raise the quality of teaching in all our classrooms.

Adult Education Devolution: Choice of Colleges

What assessment he has made of the effect of the devolution of the adult education budget to combined authorities on the choice of colleges available to students living near the authority boundary. (914721)

Devolution gives providers an opportunity to work with mayoral combined authorities to shape the ways in which they can contribute to meeting skills needs locally, so that more people of all ages and backgrounds are given the opportunities to develop the skills and experience they need. Devolution is based on the residency of learners, so where learners reside near boundaries, they need to attend a provider with which their funding body contracts. Many providers are funded through a number of areas to overcome this.

Both Greater Manchester Combined Authority and the Liverpool city region have been refusing funding for their residents looking to study outside their boundaries. That is severely limiting the choices available to students and has left West Lancashire College in my constituency, near both the Liverpool and Greater Manchester boundaries, with a greatly reduced potential student pool. Liverpool has agreed to stop this but Greater Manchester has not. What advice can the Minister give to local authorities acting in this protectionist way with taxpayers’ funds, to the detriment of places such as West Lancashire College?

We would encourage all mayoral combined authorities always to look at outcomes for learners. We are there to ensure that learners get the best experience and outcomes. The White Paper that we published in January 2021 sets out the Government’s overall objective for the funding system, which is to streamline the system so that there is a simpler allocation approach that will give greater autonomy and flexibility, and we also want an effective approach that improves accountability. We are currently working with the sector to develop and test our proposals ahead of consultation.

The Minister refers to a simpler adult education funding approach, but the decision to increase the adult education clawback threshold from 68% last year to 90% this year, and to impose it at the last minute, will place many colleges in a brutal financial situation. Leicester College, for example, is forecasting that it could be as much as £4 million worse off than expected. The Government can either commit to a skills-based revolution, as they claim they want to do, or endanger the sector by repeatedly cutting its funding; they cannot do both. Why is there such a dangerous discrepancy between what the Government say they want on further education and what they do?

The Government have actually increased funding across the sector quite significantly in many different ways. On the issue that the hon. Gentleman refers to, it is wrong to categorise it as such. We have effectively changed from 97%, which is the clawback this year, down to 90%, thereby giving colleges some leeway. He refers to a previous year, and it is true that we did reduce it to 68%, because that was at the very beginning of the pandemic. We have asked providers to keep provision available, to move online and to give learners that experience, and we have given them time to do so. That is a fair approach.

University of Central Lancashire: Medical Degrees

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on allocating a higher number of domestic medical places to the University of Central Lancashire’s bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery programme. (914722)

Although the Department of Health and Social Care leads on this area, I would like to take this opportunity to commend the University of Central Lancashire for the excellent job it is doing. The Government are committed to supporting the NHS by ensuring that its future workforce needs are met. Over recent years we have created an extra 1,500 medical school places and opened five new medical schools across the country, and as a result we have seen record numbers of medical students in training.

Mr Speaker, as a neighbouring MP to me, you know that the quality of education at the University of Central Lancashire medical school has been independently assessed as excellent. At a time when the health service has been crying out for more doctors during the covid-19 pandemic, can the Minister please provide assurances that, through her discussions with the Department for Health and Social Care, the University of Central Lancashire will be allocated an evidence-based significant increase in its permanent allocation of domestic medical school places, for the benefit of the county of Lancashire and the wider north-west region as a whole?

The cap on medical places was lifted last year, and those medical students who had to defer will not count towards the cap this year. If medical training places are to be permanently raised, there will be a process for medical schools to apply for a proportion of the expansion, just as was the case with the recent uplift of 1,500. I am sure that the hon. Member will be more than happy to meet the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), who also looks after workforce matters, and that she would be only too happy to discuss the issue with him.

T-Levels: Industry Placements

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that all students taking T-levels receive a high-quality industry placement. (914723)

What steps his Department is taking to ensure that all students taking T-levels receive a high-quality industry placement. (914728)

The Government have invested £165 million to help providers to prepare for and deliver industry placements, building capacity in their relationships with employers. We have invested nearly £7 million so far in direct support for employers, and we are also exploring what short-term funded support may be appropriate to enable employers to offer placements.

I welcome the Government’s plan for jobs, which rightly prioritises technical education. Does the Education Secretary agree that investing in further education and T-levels in places such as the High Peak is vital for our economic recovery, for improving skills and training, and for increasing opportunity, helping local people of all ages and backgrounds into good-quality jobs?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is so vital that we see the roll-out of T-levels. These qualifications have been designed hand in glove with employers to make sure that they are delivering not only for students, but for the employers themselves. As we roll out our skills accelerators across the country, we are putting in £65 million-worth of further investment to ensure that we start to link up jobs, skills and young people, to ensure that we are getting the workforce right for the future.

Each T-level comes with a 45-day placement in industry, which is a fantastic opportunity for young people to get some real-life experience of their chosen sector. However, owing to competing pressures on business at the moment, some businesses are reluctant to commit to these qualifications, so will my right hon. Friend meet me and the principal of Hopwood Hall College to discuss how we ensure that young people can access these qualifications and that they turn out to be the success that they clearly should be?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the principal of Hopwood Hall College to discuss that. It is incredibly important to ensure that we get this right and that it works, and for T-levels such an important element of that is the industrial placements that those young people will be able to benefit from. I think that there is agreement on both sides of the House on the importance of getting this right, and I very much hope that we can continue to build on the original consensus about the vital role that T-levels can play in ensuring that our young people have the right level of technical skills to meet our future economic needs.

Speech and Language Therapy

What assessment he has made of the effect on children’s attainment of the (a) suspension of and (b) time taken to deliver speech and language therapy in schools. (914724)

We have been very clear that speech and language therapists are able to visit educational settings and that ideally they should not be redeployed during the most recent lockdown, although that was not always possible in all parts of the country, so some children will have missed some therapy sessions. However, I met representatives of the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists last week to discuss this important issue.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will be aware that reports say that 70% of families do not have access to pre-pandemic levels of speech and language therapies. When does she hope to see this restarted in all schools? What specific steps is she taking to address the educational impact of delays for children who need this particular support?

We have been very clear that speech and language therapists are able to attend all educational settings. As we move out of restrictions, more therapists are back in schools delivering face-to-face therapy. Schools can use their catch-up and recovery funding to purchase additional therapies, and we know of examples where that has already happened. For example, my advisers spoke to a special school in Greater Manchester that has done exactly that, and it was very pleased with the services provided. Therapies are really important for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and we want them back as soon as possible. That is why we are investing more of our recovery and catch-up funding in special schools and for those with SEND than we would for others.

Official Development Assistance Reductions: Higher Education

What recent discussions his Department has had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the effect of official development assistance funding reductions on (a) higher education research and (b) universities. (914725)

What recent discussions his Department has had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the effect of official development assistance funding reductions on (a) higher education research and (b) universities. (914733)

What recent discussions his Department has had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the effect of official development assistance funding reductions on (a) higher education research and (b) universities. (914762)

My Department and I regularly discuss research in universities in England with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and with the Minister for science, research and innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway). Overall, Government investment in research and development across the UK is up to £14.9 billion in 2021-22, following four preceding years of significant growth. This shows the clear benefits of the Union in delivering on science and research across the nation.

The Universities of Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle and Coventry have all been leaders in the global challenges research fund. With the cuts to ODA, they are now having to find additional seven-figure funding to keep life-saving research going. Is this really the Tories’ fabled levelling-up agenda?

The Government recognise the importance of supporting international research partnerships and the UK research sector, especially our universities. Our commitment to research and innovation was clearly demonstrated by the recent Budget announcement that we are increasing investment in research and development to £14.6 billion. International collaboration is central to a healthy and productive R&D sector and, as a result of the policies of this Government, UK scientists will have access to more public funding than ever before.

Twelve flagship research hubs were supposed to run projects lasting five to 10 years in support of the sustainable development goals. Some of those projects are midway through clinical trials on humans but, thanks to the recent cuts, might not be able to continue, thereby jeopardising both the research and research jobs. How on earth can the Government justify funding cuts to research projects in the middle of human clinical trials, in clear violation of medical ethics?

The hon. Gentleman might like to take up his question with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, which is ultimately responsible for research. On 1 April, BEIS set out an additional £250 million of funding for R&D—as a result of which, as I have said, UK scientists will have access to more public funding than ever before—taking the total Government investment in R&D to £14.9 billion in 2021-22, despite what the Opposition would have the public believe.

Because of the ODA cuts, universities have reported that research contracts have been terminated, sometimes with just a few hours’ notice. This has undermined trust between researchers, universities and UK Research and Innovation, and it also means that research commissioners now require a risk assessment on the UK Government’s ability to honour contracts. Why does the Minister think it is acceptable that the UK Government’s promises mean so little that they need to be risk assessed?

On the actual ODA allocations, BEIS is currently working with UKRI, all global challenge research funds and its Newton fund delivery partners to manage the financial year 2021-22, including by determining which projects will go ahead. Its delivery partners have been communicated with, and award holders will set out the next stages of the review of ODA funding next year and explore the options available for individual programmes.

Northern College, Barnsley: Residential Provision

What steps he is taking to ensure the future sustainability of residential provision at Northern College in Barnsley. [R] (914726)

The Further Education Commissioner carried out a diagnostic assessment at Northern College in February, and a structure and prospects appraisal started this month, on 21 April. A number of options are being considered to improve the college’s financial position. We will continue to work with Sheffield City Region Mayoral Combined Authority and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, which will provide the majority of the college’s funding from August 2021.

I am grateful the Minister for that response. She will know that Northern College is one of Barnsley’s proudest institutions—it provides an outstanding level of education and reaches disadvantaged learners—but financially it is on the brink. In respect of the Government’s review, will the Minister commit to working closely with local stakeholders, so that together we can do everything we can to ensure that Northern College retains its independence and its residential provision?

I have had many representations from MPs in the hon. Gentleman’s area, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates). As I said, the structure and prospects appraisal began on 21 April. Membership of the steering group includes representatives of the college governing body, the interim FE Commissioner, the deputy FE Commissioner, senior officers from the two combined authorities and the Education and Skills Funding Agency. The FE Commissioner’s team has made contact with all local MPs and I have offered a call with all local MPs. We are committed to work in good faith to ensure that we look seriously at the options for Northern College.

End-of-Year Assessments 2021

What progress he has made on ensuring that there is an effective end-of-year assessment process for school students in 2021. (914727)

In the absence of statutory assessments, primary schools continue to assess children’s attainment and support the transition to secondary education. Guidance has been published to support secondary schools to determine grades for GCSE, A-levels and AS-levels, as well as vocational and technical qualifications. Students can be assured that grades will be as fair and consistent as possible and that they will be able to move on to the next stage of their education and careers.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. I met students from years 11 and 10 and the staff from South Charnwood High School near Markfield. They are very concerned about the assessments not only for this year, but for next year as well. What work is going on to look at future assessments to make sure that what happens is fair not only this year, but next year and subsequently, because those pupils are anxious?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We remain clear that exams are the fairest method of assessment. We know that students at South Charnwood High School and elsewhere will be working hard to prepare for exams in 2022. We continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic, and we will announce our plans to ensure that pupils in years 10 and 12 can be awarded grades safely and fairly in 2022.

Like so many other aspects of the Government’s coronavirus response, the Department for Education’s handling of exams has been a total disaster. Schools are currently grappling with a whole series of challenges that could have been easily avoided if only the Department had planned ahead. Can we finally have the triumph of hope over experience, and the Government learn their lessons from last year’s disaster and the unfolding disaster this year and publish plans for next year so that those exams are not a disaster, too?

Given the disruption to children’s education over the past year, it would not be fair for exams to go ahead as normal. On 15 January, 11 days after the decision was taken to cancel exams, we consulted Ofqual on the details of alternative arrangements to ensure that students can be awarded a grade and can move on to the next stage of their lives, despite the fact that we have had to cancel exams. That consultation received more than 100,000 responses. This year’s students taking their GCSEs and A-levels and some vocational and technical qualifications will receive grades determined by their teachers based on a range of evidence, including in-class tests, course work and optional exam board-provided sets of questions. Robust internal and external quality assurance processes are in place to ensure fairness and consistency. We will monitor the position regarding 2022 and we will make a statement then.

Order. I say gently to the Minister that that must have been the longest answer. I am sure that he would like to get some other colleagues in.

Covid-19: School Reopenings

What assessment his Department has made of the progress made by schools on fully reopening as covid-19 lockdown restrictions have eased. (914729)

What assessment his Department has made of the progress made by schools on fully reopening as covid-19 lockdown restrictions have eased. (914742)

What assessment his Department has made of the progress made by schools on fully reopening as covid-19 lockdown restrictions have eased. (914746)

The return to school from 8 March has been very successful. Just before Easter, on 25 March, 99.8% of state-funded schools were open. From 15 April, pupil attendance in state-funded schools was at 94%. That is higher than at any point during the autumn term.

School funding in South Cambridgeshire has been a particular focus of mine and something that I have raised with the Department before. We have the sixth lowest funding in the country, with £400 per pupil per year less than the national average. The formula means that small village schools are particularly badly affected. Last week, I met one chair of governors of a primary school that has had to make a teacher and an assistant teacher redundant and has now had to merge the years. Will my right hon. Friend consider a change to the system to help small schools that have high fixed costs per capita but that are expected to meet the same standards as larger schools with comparatively higher funding?

We all know the very important role that small schools play in our communities and villages right across the country. That is why we took the decision to increase the funding to support them from £26 million to £42 million in the latest settlement. That is on top of the fact that we are increasing spending on our schools right across the board, and, for this financial year, my hon. Friend’s schools will receive, on average, a 3.8% increase in their funding, which goes to show that we recognise the importance of fair funding right across the country.

I thank the Secretary of State for the work that his Department has done with the Engineering University Technical College in Scunthorpe on its new and exciting health, sciences and social care course. Will he welcome this course and encourage young people in Scunthorpe to look at everything that is on offer, because colleges have not had their usual opportunity to speak to students and visit schools during this unusual year?

I congratulate the Northern Lincolnshire University Technical College. UTCs do an amazing job right around the country, not least in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They can be truly transformative to young people’s life chances. I very much look forward to working with her to make sure that that message is put out there. It is also quite right to pay tribute to the amazing work of Lord Baker who has done so much to champion the cause of UTCs, making sure that they opened up opportunities for so many young people in all of our constituencies.

An important part of my and my children’s education was visiting places such as our fantastic museums. What work is being undertaken to ensure that those visits can resume safely as our country comes out of lockdown?

We all know that children gain so much from visiting museums and other great cultural institutions right around the country. I was delighted that the latest step out of lockdown taken by this country meant that children were able to go on non-residential visits around the country. Moving into step 3 will be another opportunity—for young people to be able to visit museums. It will be so important for them to have that experience. We look forward to working with schools and encouraging them to make such visits—not least, of course, in my hon. Friend’s part of world in Cornwall.

50 to 66-year-olds: Qualifications

What recent assessment his Department has made of the proportion of the population aged between 50 and 66 that have a university degree or two A-levels. (914730)

I always feel nervous to cut off the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) when he is in full flow. Office for National Statistics data for 2020 shows that 29% of those aged 50 to 64 have a degree, and 20% have A-levels or equivalent as their highest qualification. This Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to upskill, including through: the lifetime skills guarantee, which includes free courses for jobs; new skills boot camps, funded by £375 million, made available through the national skills fund; and a new lifelong loan entitlement.

This question is very timely because, in the here and now, today’s report from the Resolution Foundation highlights the difficulties being faced by the over-50s in getting back into work. One of the many obstacles they face is insistence by employers, or their graduate-stuffed HR departments, on A-levels or university degrees, even when those qualifications are not relevant to the job. The Minister will recognise the unfair nature of this for a generation for which, as is shown by the figures, taking such qualifications was much less common. Can we get employers—public and private—to focus on the person, not the piece of paper, and end this wasteful discrimination against older workers?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct, as he would often say he always is; he is absolutely right on this issue. It is so important that employers look at the experience—what people have learnt over their careers—and the true value that they are able to bring to that company. We must not be trapped in the situation that so many companies get themselves into, whereby jobs are advertised as “graduate only”, when so many people who could be applying for that job would bring a level and depth of experience unequalled in so many other areas. I would happily work with the right hon. Gentleman to do more to ensure that all employers understand the value of a workforce of all ages.

Disabled Children: Covid-19 Recovery Plan

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of implementing a covid-19 recovery plan for disabled children and their families. (914731)

We are committed to helping all pupils and students, including those with disabilities, to recovery from any lost learning or development. We have already allocated £1.7 billion to support education recovery and have appointed Sir Kevan Collins, who has a wealth of experience on SEND, to lead our work to effectively target resources and support towards those with the greatest need.

The Disabled Children’s Partnership says that the health of over half of disabled children has deteriorated due to delays and reductions in essential health and therapy appointments. The Government have advised that such appointments should be prioritised, but many families are not being reached. Will the Minister develop a cross-departmental therapies and health catch-up plan for disabled children and families as part of the wider covid-19 plan?

We have been very clear that schools and colleges remain open for therapists to attend, but some children will have missed some therapies during the pandemic. Schools can use their catch-up and recovery funding to purchase additional therapies, as I mentioned in my answer to an earlier question. Many schools, especially special schools, have done so already. I advise the hon. Member to ensure that he is in touch with local schools in Bedfordshire. In his own borough, we have increased the high-needs funding budget by 8% for this financial year, on top of an 8% increase last year. The funding should be there; please do get the therapists back into the schools and use that catch-up and recovery funding well.

Solar Power for Schools

With reference to his Department’s proposals for a centralised procurement framework, what recent discussions he has had with the community energy sector on solar power for schools. (914732)

I will try to be brief, Mr Speaker. In January 2020, the DFE commercial team conducted market research when considering the possibility of undertaking a commercial tender for the provision of solar installations and monitoring in schools. On 14 and 15 January, a two-day supplier surgery was held where officials met a range of organisations, including community energy groups.

Community energy providers have successfully installed community solar on school roofs for many years, including in my constituency of Bath. This is one of the few remaining community energy models, but the Department’s proposed new framework to centralise procurement threatens to take it away. Will the Minister meet me and representatives of the community energy sector to discuss the impact of these proposals, plus a possible way forward?

Yes, of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member. The DFE is currently reviewing a variety of options for the most appropriate solutions for schools to assess the relevant supply chains for solar installation, and I look forward to having that discussion soon.

Turing Scheme: Disadvantaged Students

What steps his Department is taking to encourage take-up of the Turing scheme by disadvantaged students. (914734)

The Turing scheme encourages take-up among students from disadvantaged backgrounds, with additional financial support to make this opportunity accessible to all. Disadvantaged students can receive increased grants towards living costs and funding for travel-related costs such as passports, visas and insurance. We have actively targeted and promoted the scheme in areas of disadvantage, helping to level up the country.

Can I ask my right hon. Friend particularly about agricultural and technical education? Across the United Kingdom, young farmers clubs and our agricultural colleges are doing a terrific job and have built a global network, and have often been let down by previous schemes. What can we do to support the technical and agricultural aspects of this scheme?

I think we all know in this House that my hon. Friend is a great champion of agricultural interests in his Montgomeryshire constituency. He is right. This is an incredibly international business and it is important to learn on an international level, whether it is from our friends in Australia, in New Zealand or in many other countries. I would be happy to meet him to discuss how this could be done more, maybe through the agricultural colleges and universities that serve our agriculture industry so very well.

The Government have stated that they want more disadvantaged students to participate in Turing, so how does the Secretary of State assess the success of this scheme for disadvantaged students, and will he commit to an annual report to Parliament on these figures?

We have already seen a really high level of interest from both institutions and, most importantly, students in the new Turing scheme. They recognise that they want to seize the opportunities on a global scale as against being constrained by the European Union. That is why I have every confidence that we will have such an enormous success with the Turing scheme and it will be truly transformative to young people’s lives.

This is a Government of illusion. The Prime Minister said that there was no risk to Erasmus, then it was gone, replaced with the Turing scheme, which Ministers said would improve opportunities. But a quick look at the scheme shows that for cost of living, Turing offers just £490 of support—£140 less than Erasmus—while for travel costs, only a fraction of students are now eligible whereas under Erasmus+ all students were eligible for up to £1,300. In tuition fees, there is no support, whereas it was guaranteed under Erasmus for free. Could the Secretary of State just be straight with students and confirm that Turing equals Erasmus minus?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman obviously is not very familiar with the scheme. Actually, there are a number of slight inaccuracies in what he stated. I would be happy to send him the details so that he can undertake some homework and understand it a little bit better in future.

International Students: Hotel Quarantine

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the capacity of the Government's covid-19 hotel quarantine system to meet demand from international students entering the UK in summer 2021. (914735)

I have been working closely with my counterparts across Government, including in the Department of Health and Social Care, about how covid-19 policies affect international and domestic students. Immigration concessions allow for the ongoing provision of online learning this academic year, meaning that international students can study remotely from the UK or in their home country. Universities have informed us that a sizeable number have stayed in the UK throughout.

International students are hugely important to our universities. With India added to the red list, there is real concern that the cost of hotel quarantine will be a deal breaker for some. Can the Minister tell us whether universities will be allowed to manage the quarantine system for themselves, which they are well qualified to do, and how soon could that be resolved? If not, who or what is the obstacle?

International students, including those from India, are indeed a vital and valued part of our higher education sector and communities. The UK was one of the first countries to introduce important visa concessions for international students at the very start of the pandemic. That has been flexible throughout, including extending the deadline for eligibility for the graduate route to 21 June. We continue to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the UK remains as accessible and welcoming as possible. International students are also eligible for the additional £85 million that we have given universities for support with hardship.

Topical Questions

The “Skills for Jobs” White Paper set out the Government’s plans to put employers at the heart of local skills provision. Since January, we have delivered on what we set out by expanding our skills bootcamps, offering free level 3 qualifications to eligible adults from 1 April and opening applications for the skills accelerator. We will continue to build on that over the coming weeks and months.

In Wales, the Labour Government are investing heavily in catch-up summer schools, geared in particular to children from poorer backgrounds. We know that 50% of children from poorer backgrounds start school with speech and language difficulties. What is the Education Secretary doing to ensure that these pupils do not suffer disproportionately from cuts in England to the pupil premium, when it is they who are most in need of catch-up after the lockdown?

I am glad to see that the Government in Wales are following the example of what is being done in England. Hopefully they will be able to see an increase in standards in schools in Wales similar to what we have been seeing in England. We continue to ensure that we offer additional support, especially to those schools that are special schools and looking after some of the children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Our interventions, including an additional £1.7 billion, go a long way to ensuring that children, especially those who are most disadvantaged, are properly supported.

Hundreds of new courses have become available this month through the lifetime skills guarantee, across a very wide range of business sectors. How is my right hon. Friend ensuring that the voice of business is heard in identifying priorities so that skills development takes place where the skills are needed most? (914781)

It is absolutely vital, as we make more courses and support available—people may have to look at re-entering the labour market in a different area from the one they previously worked in—that we are matching that up with where the skills needs are. We work very closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pension, but most importantly, we work with employers on the designation of what courses are available. I would be happy to take any representations from my hon. Friend if there is more work that can be done together to ensure that this process is best honed to ensure people get into work as swiftly as possible.

The Scottish National party has committed in its manifesto to free school breakfasts and lunches for all children in primary school. Can we expect a similar commitment for primary children in England?

The Department has already been funding breakfast clubs in more than 2,450 schools in disadvantaged areas of the country. We have just announced another £24 million to continue that programme and reach even more children in the two years ahead.

Although I do not have a university in my constituency, I do have many young people who travel to universities up and down the country. They are concerned—financial concerns, accommodation, freshers’ and concerns—about going back to university in September and October. What are the Government doing to ensure that there is a smooth return for those who have already attended and a welcome for those who are new to university? (914783)

I think we are all very much looking forward to welcoming all university students back, and we very much expect to be seeing that as part of the next step. I would like to thank universities for the work they have been doing to ensure that universities are covid-secure, including extensive testing of students in universities and the greater availability of the home testing kits that we have been able to deliver on. We will continue to work with Universities UK, the Russell Group and the whole sector to ensure that students are able to return to university safely at the earliest possible moment and that we are able to welcome a new cohort of students in September.

More and more children are relying on free school meals because of the pandemic. The Government’s holiday activities and food programme tells local councils to provide just 16 days’ worth of food support over a six-week summer holiday period, so could I ask the Minister: what does she expect children to eat the rest of the time?

This Government have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any other Government over the past half a century. We have spent almost half a billion pounds on vouchers so that children had access to food when schools were closed during lockdown. We have spent £270 million through local authorities on making sure that children, including pre-school children, could get access to food and essentials. We have this massive holiday activities and food programme running all across the country—not only food, but fun and friendships. I just wish the Labour party would get behind this fantastic initiative, go and see what it is giving our children, see what they get out of it and the benefits of it, and say well done to everybody involved.

Thanks to our teachers and all in education, our schools are once again the centres of learning. Many pupils and teachers at secondary schools would like to see face coverings in the classroom come to an end by 17 May. Can I ask the Minister if the data gives cause for optimism? (914784)

Our overriding objective is to keep covid out of the classroom and keep pupils and staff safe. All decisions will be based on that data, and on scientific and medical advice. Whether or not we continue to advise that face coverings should be worn in secondary school classrooms is subject to step 3 of the road map process, which will happen, as my hon. Friend mentioned, no earlier than 17 May.

Students have had a difficult year dealing with online learning, isolation, and increased student poverty and debt. As these young people will play a key role in driving economic recovery, does the Secretary of State agree that it is time to reassess this Government’s position on tuition fees and free students from the shackles of debt? (914780)

We recognise that it is incredibly important that we do everything we can do to support students, which is why we made available £85 million of hardship funding. We also recognise how important it is that we have a really thriving higher education sector. That is why we have maintained investment in research and development, which is the backbone of so many of our universities.

We all know that the use of mobile phones in the classroom can have a very negative impact not just on a child’s education, but on their mental health. They are also a breeding ground, unfortunately, for bullying. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he will be moving ahead with his plan to support schools to become mobile phone-free environments? (914788)

My hon. Friend raises an important issue about mental health and wellbeing. Sometimes, bullying can sadly be exacerbated as a result of such issues, and mobile phones are used to do that. Some 50% of schools have already rolled out phone-free environments, while ensuring that students have access to a mobile phone as they travel to and from school. That delivers benefits for children’s wellbeing and mental health, as well as for how well they do at school. We want such environments to be rolled out, and I assure my hon. Friend that that is what we will do.

I have written to the Minister about an error in the way the national school census recorded nursery provision. Along with the cancellation of the summer census, that meant that Four Acres academy in my constituency lost some £80,000. The Government change of date on the pupil premium has left Bristol schools with a shortfall of about £1.6 million. Catch-up funding is about £1.64 million. By my maths, that is a case—almost exactly—of the Lord giveth, and the Lord has taken away. Will the Minister meet me to assure me that poorer children in Bristol are not being penalised, and will he publish the data and let us see exactly what has come to our schools and what has been taken away? I will work with the Minister to ensure that that is clear. (914785)

We have invested record amounts in early years funding over the past few years, with more than £3.5 billion a year for the past three years. We have continued to put unprecedented amounts into that. I confirm that, on the whole, more funding will be going to the pupil premium next year than in previous years. The Schools Minister leads on this matter, and I am sure he would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.

The Secretary of State was good enough to meet me to look at the condition of the windows at Malvern Parish primary school. Will he update the House on when the next condition improvement fund will be announced? (914789)

On 8 April we announced that we are working with 16 colleges in some of the worst conditions, and we expect to announce the outcome of the first FE capital transformation fund bidding round in October. The condition improvement fund 2021-22 application round for schools closed on 14 January, and outcomes will be announced later in the spring.

Further education colleges are central to the roll-out of the Government’s skills agenda, yet in London the teaching grant for further education colleges has been cut by 13.7%, which is equivalent to a loss of £64 million. Will the Minister explain why the levelling-up agenda has meant levelling-down for further education in London? (914786)

There is a major expansion in the amount of money we are investing in further education, and the last settlement included a commitment to close to £700 million for that. We are also putting a £1.5 billion capital investment into further education colleges, and colleges in London are able to apply for that.

What practical steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that children, young people, and staff in educational settings have access to appropriately qualified people to help with mental health issues? (914790)

Support for the mental health and wellbeing of our young people is important, and the Government are making a major investment in such support. We recently announced a further £79 million boost for mental health services for children, which will accelerate the provision of mental health support teams in schools and colleges. That is on top of the £2.3 billion a year that we have committed through the NHS long-term plan. Since September, our Wellbeing for Education Return scheme has linked schools with local mental health experts in 90% of local authorities.

This country deserves a well-funded, well-valued teaching profession, but the litany of problems affecting teachers has not gone away, and issues such as increased workload, stress, and a lack of professional autonomy have been documented widely, including by the Department. With a looming recruitment and retention crisis, does the Minister have any long-term plans to allow greater autonomy and trust? Would a potential recruitment and retention strategy promise to do away with the excessive scrutiny of teaching professionals? (914787)

The essence of our academies programme is about delivering autonomy for schools, and it is that autonomy—the hon. Lady is quite right—that is driving up standards. We have also, since 2014, been addressing the workload issues of schoolteachers up and down the country, and that has proven successful in reducing the number of hours in addition to teaching time that schoolteachers face.

The new all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys will, I hope, do very good work during this Parliament, including on educational attainment. Given that there is still a tiny number of male teachers in primary education—do not even get me started on early years—what are the Government doing to address that imbalance, and given the shifting labour market that we have seen post pandemic, what are they doing to get new, inspirational teachers into the classroom from non-traditional backgrounds? (914791)

I share my hon. Friend’s concern about this issue, and I pay tribute to him for his work on this matter and that of the APPG. We aim to attract and retain high-skilled, talented individuals, including men, into teaching through effective pay structures and financial incentives, and we have set out plans to increase starting salaries nationally to £30,000. We also intend to retain male teachers in primary schools by offering world-class support and development through the early career framework reforms.

Parents and students alike are concerned about the impact the pandemic has had on students’ learning, particularly for those in years 10 and 12, who will face exams next summer. Will my right hon. Friend therefore update the House on what steps he is taking to support those students to ensure that they meet their full potential and get the results they deserve? (914794)

We have invested £1.7 billion to help pupils get back on track, including through tutoring. We will continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic on all students, including those due to take their exams in 2022, to ensure that students in this cohort can receive a fair grade. We have appointed Sir Kevan Collins as recovery commissioner, and he is advising on further measures to ensure that all students catch up on the education that they have lost.

I am suspending the House for three minutes in order to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.