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Topical Questions

Volume 693: debated on Monday 26 April 2021

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.