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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 700: debated on Monday 6 September 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Universities: Physical Teaching

2. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential effect of (a) covid-19 quarantine requirements for international students and (b) outbreaks of covid-19 in universities on the safe return to physical teaching in the 2021-22 academic year. (903316)

We have worked closely with the sector to ensure that international students will be supported and welcomed. Universities UK International has published bespoke self-isolation guidance for universities. The Government’s approach to the lifting of restrictions has been guided by data analysis and advice from public health and the scientific community.

The University of Stirling has offered international students who arrive from red-list countries free on-campus isolation accommodation that includes meals, polymerase chain reaction tests and airport transfers, saving the students more than £2,000. Given the huge economic benefits that international students bring to this country, will the Government consider financially supporting universities to replicate the good practice at Stirling?

We work with the university sector throughout the United Kingdom to attract the highest-quality talent from around the globe to study at our universities. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point out the important economic benefits that international students bring to the whole United Kingdom. We will continue to work closely with the sector to attract students, and with the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that their access to the UK is easy and properly supported.

I draw the House’s attention to my role as a governor of the Valley Leadership Academy. That school, among others in Rossendale and Darwen, sends lots of pupils to university to take vocational courses and to study for vocational qualifications. With that in mind, I thank the Secretary of State for the funding to rebuild two schools in Rossendale—Whitworth Community High School and All Saints’ Roman Catholic High School; will he also fund a new building at the Valley Leadership Academy for all the pupils who want to go on to vocational courses?

I thought that if I gave my right hon. Friend two schools, it might shut him up, but he continues to ask for a third. I would love to make such a large promise for him at the Dispatch Box. I would be more than happy to sit down with him to discuss it and see what can be done. He is absolutely right about the value of technical education and how it delivers so much not only for youngsters themselves but for the economy.

Here we are in September and there is a certain sense of groundhog day, with campus chaos caused by the actions, or inaction, of the Government set to return. In November last year, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies published a report that showed that covid outbreaks on campus could be reduced through the provision of air-ventilation filters. The Welsh Labour Government have committed funding for such machines but the UK Government have not. According to a poll by Manor Interiors, the greatest concern among students returning to their accommodation is air ventilation, so why have the UK Government not provided funding to make campuses safe?

The hon. Gentleman seems to have missed quite a significant difference between this year and last year: we have rolled out one of the most successful vaccine programmes anywhere in Europe. We were one of the first countries to offer people not just one vaccine but two and to make sure that the adult population had that available. That is the big difference between this year and last year.

I hope that all our standards of dress meet your expectations, Mr Speaker.

It is good to be back, but in the previous academic year many of us were shocked to see the scenes of international students having to queue at a food bank in London because economic opportunities for them had dried up due to lockdown. What provision has the Secretary of State put in place to support international students should there be similar lockdowns during this academic year?

May I say that you are brilliantly attired today, Mr Speaker, as you always are?

The hon. Lady asks an important question about international students. Such students have always had access to hardship funding, which is available to them as it is to domestic students.

University Campuses: Freedom of Speech

We are working to ensure that lawful freedom of speech is supported to the fullest extent, which is why the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was introduced on 12 May. The Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and introduce clear consequences for breaches of the new duties.

Labour and the Lib Dems have described the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill as a distraction. Does my hon. Friend agree that the politicising of education, the tearing down of statues and the censorship of speakers who do not fit left-wing woke narratives are all completely indefensible, and that the protection of academic freedoms and freedom of speech in education settings should be a priority for us all?

This Government believe that freedom of speech and academic freedom are a fundamental pillar of our higher education system and that protecting those principles should be a priority for our universities and never a distraction. That is why this Government have introduced a Bill to strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom.

Supporting Young People into High-quality Jobs

We are supporting young people to ensure that they have the skills and the high-quality, secure and fulfilling employment through the plan for jobs package with £500 million of Department for Education funding. This includes the largest ever expansion of traineeships and an increased incentive payment of £3,000 for employers hiring apprentices.

Future skills and technical education are at the forefront of skills investment in East Devon following the Prime Minister’s visit to launch the lifetime skills guarantee. Exeter College has opened a groundbreaking future skills centre and has also launched a new Institute of Technology Digital and Data Centre. Does the Secretary of State agree that Devon must continue to diversify in education to improve skills and career opportunities to help provide a future for more young people in Devon?

Having had the privilege of visiting Exeter College, I can say that, with its Institute of Technology, it is a brilliant example of how a college can expand its range of careers and opportunities for so many young people and ensure that they do not think that there is only one route, which is to go to university. My hon. Friend is right to highlight how important it is to have a broad range of opportunities, especially in the new and emerging technologies, which will be so vital in driving the economy forward in East Devon and the south-west.

I recently spoke to staff and students on a visit to Construction College Midlands based at King’s Norton Business Park, which offers courses on scaffolding, roofing and road maintenance. Does the Minister agree that those skills are vital to our economy and that what he and his Department are doing will help people to gain these new skills and to change jobs mid-career if they want to do so?

My hon. Friend raises a key point about making sure that people can skill up throughout their career and have the opportunity to take different routes. So much of British industry has been crying out for certain types of skills, which they have sometimes had to look abroad for. What is so key is ensuring that we have those skills available not just for young people, but for all people so that we can meet those skills needs in this country.

I am a great believer in the idea that a university education is not always the route to a high-quality job and that T-levels are a fantastic opportunity to provide not only the technical qualifications, but the industry placements, which are so important. Will my right hon. Friend support me in my drive and mission to encourage businesses in my constituency to come on board and provide those industry placements? It is a win-win situation not just for young adults, but for businesses because they can circumnavigate the recruitment process as they will have those candidates on board and can experience what they can deliver.

My hon. Friend has identified the real opportunities that exist for businesses in working with young people and colleges and bringing them into their company. T-levels have been designed hand in glove with employers, making sure that they are not only fit for employers, but work for students as well. I join her in encouraging employers to take on placements for T-levels. We are seeing a big expansion this year and expect an even bigger expansion next year.

Scotland has the highest proportion of school leavers going into positive destinations anywhere in the UK. Free tuition in schools, colleges and universities saves Scottish students up to £27,000. Given that fees will be imposed on English students seeking vocational courses, can the Minister detail what assessment has been carried out on the impact of fees for vocational courses in England?

We are working across the sector to ensure that there is an ever-expanded offer of higher technical qualifications. The lifetime skills guarantee has been introduced and has already had excellent take-up, which means that if people have missed a level 3 qualification, they have the opportunity later in life to take one completely free of charge in order to boost their future employment and earnings potential.

I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is doing on skills and for the Government’s excellent holiday activities programme over the summer. The attainment gap between boys and girls is widening, with 62.3% of boys receiving A to C grades at GCSE, but 74% of girls receiving the same results. What is he going to do to ensure that boys are not left behind, including in the jobs market?

My right hon. Friend and I are very much united in the same mission: to ensure that youngsters from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds are given every possible advantage to be able to do the very best in their life. There is a concern about the widening gap between boys and girls, which is why all the interventions regarding standards and small group tutoring are about driving up attainment and achievement. Some of the initiatives that we have introduced—such as the summer schools in which half a million students have taken part over the last few weeks and the tutoring programme—have started to have an impact, but I recognise that there is so much more to do. That is why we are absolutely committed to deliver on this.

GCSE and A-level Examinations

5. What steps he is taking to help ensure that the structure of GCSE and A-level examinations in summer 2022 is equitable for all students, including those with limited access to online learning. (903319)

Ensuring fairness is at the core of every decision that we have made regarding exams in 2022. Together with Ofqual, we have consulted on adaptations to GCSE and A-level exams in 2022, so that they take account of the disruption to pupils’ education. The consultation on the details of those adaptations was launched on 12 July and closed on 1 August. We plan to announce decisions shortly.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State and the Minister could aim higher in their grades next year. Last year we saw U-turns, not just on teacher assessments, but on the broken algorithm. Residents and teachers in Ilford South would really like some assurances in the year ahead that instead of dithering and delaying—like almost every other decision over the last 18 months—we will actually get clarity from the Education Secretary and his team, and that they will learn from their mistakes and provide a contingency plan in case exams cannot go ahead as normal in 2022.

It is, of course, our intention that exams will go ahead in 2022. They are the fairest method of assessing young people. As I have said, we have already announced the details of adaptations to those exams to ensure that they are fair. We are also working with Ofqual, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, on contingency plans in case it does not prove possible for exams to go ahead safely or fairly, and those plans will be published shortly.[Official Report, 14 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 7MC.]

Since the Government took over, the gap between state school and private school attainment has grown to a record degree. It is also growing at record speed. Is this the legacy that the Minister is proud of? If not, what is he going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman ought to look at the record of the last Labour Government. The gap was narrowing throughout the years

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will tell him our record. Under this Government, the gap between the independent sector and the state sector in terms of top grades for A-levels narrowed from 2009-10 to 2018, from 27 percentage points to 21 percentage points. If we go back further and look at the proportion of three grade As and A*s attained at A-level in independent schools versus the proportion achieving those grades in state schools, the gap widened under the last Labour Government, rising by 13 percentage points between 1994 and 2009. The gap was at its maximum in 2009, at 22.1 percentage points, before steadily declining by 15.8 percentage points by 2018-19.

Given the disparity between the predicted A-level grades awarded by state and private sector schools this year, does the Minister agree that in order to create a level playing field for all students, A-level exams should be marked and grades awarded before they apply to university? Do the Government remain committed to that policy?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are committed, as a Government, to looking at post-qualification applications to university to address the very real issues that he raises.

Whether in examinations or any other element of the education system, funding is crucial. Haringey borough has lost £690,720 of its pupil premium. When are the Government going to put that right?

The pupil premium this academic year will be £2.5 billion, up from £2.4 billion last year. This Government introduced the pupil premium because we are committed to ensuring that a child’s background should not reflect their outcomes in their education.

The Institute for Government has estimated that it will take about three years for the dust around grade inflation to settle. Will my right hon. Friend tell us when the chair of Ofqual will outline a plan to tackle that; and will he please squash the ridiculous rumours about an A** or grade 10 being brought in?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I can assure him that there will be no change to the grading system for 2022 but we are looking at the longer-term issue about grading in GCSEs and A-levels.

BTEC Qualifications

6. What steps he is taking to help ensure that students can continue to study for BTEC qualifications in the future. (903321)

23. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of removing funding for BTEC qualifications on students wishing to undertake vocational qualifications. (903338)

Employers are facing skills shortages that we must act to address. It is vital in a fast-moving and high-tech economy that technical education closes the gap between what people study and the needs of employers. Our plans for reform of level 3 qualifications were published on 14 July. We will continue to fund high-quality qualifications that can be taken alongside—or as alternatives to—T-levels and A-levels where there is a clear need for skills and knowledge that T-levels and A-levels cannot provide. Those may include some Pearson BTECs, provided that they meet new quality criteria for funding approval.

The DFE’s own impact assessment says that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds will lose most from scrapping BTEC funding, and that does not fit with what the Government talk about in their levelling-up agenda. Wyke Sixth Form College in Hull North, under the excellent leadership of Paul Britton, currently offers vocational BTECs in areas such as engineering, IT, computing, and health and social care—all highly relevant to our economic needs now. Given the growing problem of skills and labour shortages that the Minister has referred to, is not scrapping BTEC funding, with no tried and tested replacement, both damaging and short-sighted?

We are not scrapping BTEC funding; we are upgrading our level 3 qualification offer to make sure that it keeps in line with the needs of today’s economy. T-levels were in design for many years. They were designed with 250 leading employers who said that the qualifications needed to be upgraded to keep up. Poor-quality qualifications benefit nobody, least of all those who are disadvantaged. All our qualifications will be high-quality and we will make sure that they offer clear progression routes into the workforce or into higher education.

Where learners over the age of 19 are returning to study, the removal of BTEC funding will mean that only those following an academic pathway will have the option to return to study or to skilled employment. How is removing learners’ options to progress to level 3 qualifications and to higher education or employment compatible with the lifetime skills guarantee offer? Can that be right?

To be clear, the level 3 offer will also include T-levels; we are also considering access to those to a broader group. The lifetime skills guarantee is a level 3 offer specifically focused on adults that was introduced in April this year in more than 400 courses, all of which address a skills shortage. We are trying to make sure that when people put their time, and sometimes their own money, into study, it offers value to them and to the workplace. That is what is behind our level 3 qualifications review.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the outstanding work done by Lackham College in Chippenham—the constituency of my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities—with regard to land-based training, agriculture, horses and animal handling, must be recognised in every possible way, and that many of these people deserve a BTEC? Will she also give some further thought to the question of how they fund resits, which at the moment are entirely unfunded?

My hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) and I went to visit Lackham very recently and were delighted to see its investment in agritech facilities, which are groundbreaking and world class. It will mean that young people in that area will have the opportunity to study the very latest technology and techniques that will be required for our agriculture industry. In addition, there will also be a land management and agriculture T-level, which has been designed with the industry sector to make sure that many people across the country get the opportunity to study at that level with that investment.

Some 230,000 students have just studied BTEC level 3 qualifications. For the Minister to stand there, as she just has, and dismiss those qualifications as poor quality will disgust those students and many of the people who have supported them. The Minister suggests she has widespread support, but 86% of respondents to the Department for Education’s own consultation disagreed with the Government’s plan to scrap funding for qualifications that overlapped with T-levels. Even the former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker described it as

“an act of educational vandalism.”

Why are the Government intent on removing the ladder of opportunity from so many students, particularly those from the most deprived communities, when there is such widespread opposition to this move?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I would definitely not dismiss the BTEC qualification or its quality, and the reason I would not is that I am one of the very few people in this place who has taken a BTEC as part of their apprenticeship. I very much appreciated my BTEC as part of my apprenticeship, as I did my other qualifications.

T-levels are unashamedly rigorous. They are high-quality qualifications, and there is no point giving access to qualifications that are out of date and have not kept up with the requirements of the workforce. The skills gap between what our employers need and what young people study should not be there. This is an employer-led system. I will tell the House what is a tragedy—a tragedy is having young people not able to get on in the workplace because they have spent two or three years studying something that does not offer the value that employers need in this high-tech economy.

Primary and Secondary School Places: North East Bedfordshire

7. What recent estimate he has made of the number of (a) primary and (b) secondary school places in North East Bedfordshire constituency. (903322)

As of 1 May, the borough of Bedford had nearly 18,000 state-funded primary school places and more than 14,000 state-funded secondary school places. Central Bedfordshire had more than 23,000 state-funded primary school places and nearly 25,000 state-funded secondary school places.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the continuous funding support for Bedford borough and Central Bedfordshire, but he will be aware, given the emergency funding provided by the Government for Raynsford Academy so that it could convert to a primary starting in September, the issues around Langford village and parents not being able to get into the local school and the desperate need for a two-form entry in Sharnbook, that population growth in North East Bedfordshire, which is five times the average of that of all Members’ constituencies, puts continual pressure on school places. Will he and his Department work closely with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that we fully implement our commitment to infrastructure first?

Yes, of course. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these issues in more detail. He will know that since 2010, we have seen an additional 8,300 primary school places in the borough of Bedford and an increase of 5,800 in primary school places in Central Bedfordshire. We have allocated £12.7 million just this coming year to provide new school places needed for 2023. That takes total funding to Central Bedfordshire for new school places between 2011 and 2023 to £105.3 million, but I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss future plans further.

Music Education

We have announced plans to work alongside music industry experts to develop a refreshed national plan for music education. This is aimed at shaping the future of music education and follows the publication of the non-statutory “Model Music Curriculum: Key Stages 1, 2 and 3” earlier this year. The curriculum is designed to ensure that children are introduced to a wide repertoire of music, as well as learning to read and write musical notation and being given knowledge about the important moments in the evolution of music in a range of genres and traditions.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to refreshing the national music plan because, as I hope he recognises, music education is central to any civilised society and should not be regarded as an add-on or a nice-to-have. He will share my concern that in the 10-year currency of the previous plan, the number of pupils sitting GCSE music declined by 19%. Organisations such as the Bromley Youth Music Trust in my constituency do a great deal of excellent work outside school time, but will he assure me that the plan’s key objective will be to ensure that music education remains firmly mainstreamed within the curriculum and is not simply an add-on at unreasonable cost to parents?

I share my hon. Friend’s passion for music. It is important that music is part of a broad and balanced education in our schools. That is why it is compulsory at key stages 1, 2 and 3. We introduced the model music curriculum so that children have a good grounding that encourages them to go on to take music at GCSE. Over the past decade or longer, about 5% to 7 % of the cohort have taken a music GCSE. I would like to see that figure rise, and that is why we introduced the model music curriculum and are refreshing the national plan for music education.

Does the Minister understand that music should be not just taught as music but used to teach a whole range of other subjects? Let me take him back to the previous Labour Government, when I attended Egerton Park Arts College in my constituency as a governor and saw the Manchester Camerata perform a maths lesson using its orchestra instruments. It was absolutely mind-blowing. Do we not need more of that? Why did he scrap arts college specialist status?

I agree that music is an important part of a broad and balanced curriculum. We know there is a link between children who can play a musical instrument and, for instance, mathematics. We see that in schools such as Northampton School for Boys, which is very successful academically and also has more than 20 choirs, ensembles and orchestras, because it puts music at the very top of its priorities as well as sports. I accept everything that the hon. Member says about the importance of music in the school curriculum.

Gender Disparity in Educational Attainment

The greatest disparity in educational attainment is due to levels of advantage and special educational needs. The Government have therefore focused on raising standards for all pupils but especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Our education policies target extra funding through the £2.5 billion we will put into the pupil premium this year alongside the funding we put into high needs, rather than targeting by gender or ethnicity.

Research produced by the all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys highlights how boys are reading far less than girls, especially in disadvantaged areas, and consequently have lower literacy skills. Does my hon. Friend agree that that disparity needs to be addressed? Will her Department consider running a campaign to encourage more parents to read with young boys to address the disparity?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the benefits of early reading for a child’s later learning. I know how much he has enjoyed reading with his son. In England, we achieved the highest ever score in reading at primary level in the most recent progress in international reading literacy study, with that improvement largely attributable to the increases in the average performance of boys as well as lower performing pupils. He might like to look at the Hungry Little Minds website, which gives advice to parents on supporting early literacy. I am delighted that two thirds of mainstream primary schools have signed up to deliver the Nuffield early language intervention that is supporting our youngest children in reception with their speech, literacy and language development.

The education of girls is vital for a fuller society. Media reports, however, detail how educated Afghan women are burning their degrees, wiping their social media accounts and concealing their identities in the hope that the Taliban will not find them and seek retribution for their gaining an education. What discussions has the Department had with the Foreign Secretary to fund schemes in Afghanistan that will enable girls to continue their education?

Order. Just for the record, can we try to make supplementaries relevant to the question? I think the Minister is going to answer it.

The situation in Afghanistan, especially for girls and women, is extremely worrying; the Prime Minister is due to make a statement immediately after these proceedings. We are working really hard to resettle Afghan families for the children who have arrived in the UK. About half of those who arrived through the evacuation recently are children, and half of those children are pre-school and primary school-aged children. We are putting an extra £12 million into extra education funding to try to make sure that those children can get into schools, colleges and early years settings as soon as possible.

Lifelong Learning and Skills

As set out in the skills for jobs White Paper, we are implementing an ambitious reform programme. We are already offering free level 3 qualifications, skills boot camps and, from 2025, a lifelong loan entitlement that will ensure everyone can upskill to get great jobs in sectors that the economy needs.

South Cheshire College in my constituency has put forward ambitious employer-led plans to become an institute of technology, which will help address the employer skills gaps we have locally. That will deliver levelling up for not just Crewe and Nantwich, but the whole region. Can I encourage the Secretary of State to give his full support to its ambitious plans to become an institute of technology?

South Cheshire College, along with many colleges up and down the country, has demonstrated the real value and worth that further education can deliver, working in conjunction with the higher education sector. I am afraid I cannot be drawn into an early awarding announcement, but we recognise the real importance of such colleges and the obvious success that the early, first-wave institutes of technology are already having in the communities they serve.


T-levels are a fantastic new qualification, designed with leading employers to provide students with the best possible introduction to the world of work. We have provided a comprehensive package of support and investment to help trailblazing providers get ready to deliver. For example, we have made a total of £268 million in capital funding available for T-levels starting in 2020, 2021 and 2022, with £50 million-worth of projects having already been approved for providers delivering from this September and another £50 million-worth of projects for providers delivering from 2022. Additional revenue of £500 million per year will fund the extra T-level hours available, once fully rolled out, and we have also invested £23 million in T-level professional development to help teachers and leaders prepare for the delivery of T-levels.

I thank the Minister for her answer. I am proud that Truro and Penwith College in my constituency has been one of the first colleges to embrace the roll-out of the T-level courses. However, despite the successes of the first year, there is a need for greater flexibility—for example, with the 45 days of work placements in a part of the county where there is currently insufficient industry. Will the Minister agree to meet me and Martin Tucker, the principal of Truro and Penwith, to discuss how we can address that for the future?

We are very grateful to Truro and Penwith College and all the trailblazing colleges that have pioneered T-levels. They launched T-levels in the middle of a global pandemic, and they have done an amazing job in getting the new qualifications launched. We have been implementing flexible models and approaches to make sure that we can deliver the work placements and that they are deliverable across all industries. Through the capacity and delivery fund, we have allocated nearly £165 million to providers to help them establish the infrastructure and resources they need to deliver industry placements. This will be a culture change: our businesses need to work with our education sector as well as the education sector working with businesses. We have also put in place a £1,000 per place incentive. Of course, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend.

A-level Achievement

12. What steps his Department is taking to tackle disparities in achievement at A-level between the north and south of England. (903327)

We are focused on levelling up opportunity for young people. A-level provision will benefit from recent increases in 16 to 19 funding of almost 10% per student in the 2020-21 allocation. Furthermore, our Opportunity North East and opportunity areas programmes are investing in improving outcomes for young people in many parts of the north.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his response. A number of schools in my constituency are concerned about the increased number of parents electing to home-school their children. Can I ask my right hon. Friend how he intends to encourage those children back into the classroom, and what resources will be available to close the gap at A-level attainment between the north and south?

Many parents who educate their children at home do so extremely well, but in some cases children are not provided with a suitable education and we have provided support to help local authorities’ engagement with parents who have recently decided to home-educate. We also remain committed to a registration system for children not in school.

GCSE and A-Level Top Grades

14. What assessment he has made of the variation in the proportion of top grades awarded for GCSEs and A-levels between (a) private, (b) free and (c) other state schools in 2021. (903329)

We saw success this year for young people from all types of school who were aiming for top grades. Every year there are variations between types of school; as I said earlier, before the pandemic we were closing attainment gaps and we will redouble our efforts through our catch-up plans and broader work to level up.

On this Government’s watch the attainment gap between the richest and poorest students has rocketed. Since 2019 alone, GCSE students on free school meals have fallen behind their peers by almost a third. This adversely affects pupils in my constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, who are significantly more likely to receive free school meals. When will the Minister ditch this empty rhetoric and step up to the plate to resolve the fundamental underlying issues?

We totally understand the challenges many young people have faced during the pandemic. Up until the pandemic we had closed the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers by 13% in primary school and 9% in secondary school, and the hon. Lady ought to look back at the Labour record we inherited in 2010. We accept, however, the challenges faced by young people during the pandemic, which is why we are committing £3 billion to catch-up funding and introducing a tuition revolution with 100 million hours of small group tuition for young people, because this Government will do everything we can to ensure that children can catch up from any lost education they have suffered during the pandemic.

Ventilation in Universities: Government Funding

15. What funding the Government have provided to universities for effective ventilation to help safeguard students against covid-19 in the 2021-22 academic year. (903330)

Higher education providers should complete suitable and sufficient assessments of the risk of covid-19 and identify measures to manage those risks, including ensuring adequate ventilation based on our comprehensive guidance. As autonomous institutions, it is for providers to put in place their plans based on individual circumstances, including allocating their own budgets.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s comments, there are still huge gaps in what needs to be done to provide a safe learning environment for students up and down the country. Students, including many from my Edinburgh West constituency, have already had two academic years disrupted and proper ventilation will be vital to preventing a third, so will the Minister make a commitment here and now that if the schools test pilot currently under way proves successful, it will also be rolled out in our universities?

The hon. Member talks of Edinburgh university but I am sure she will understand that education is in fact devolved. She also refers to the CO2 monitoring devices that are being allocated this term to schools; however, technical limitations mean that CO2 monitors are likely to be unsuitable for many spaces in universities, particularly those with high ceilings.

Skills that Businesses Need: Equipping Students

16. What steps he is taking to encourage schools to equip students with the skills that businesses need. (903331)

As previously mentioned, T-levels are the new gold standard that have been designed in collaboration with leading employers—250 of them—and our further education reform White Paper and Bill that will be coming before this place are focused on trying to put employers at the centre of our system, to make sure the skills people get give them real currency in the labour market and are backed up by significant funding. I have been lucky enough to visit many providers and speak to many students, and these qualifications are game-changing; the offer is unbelievable and I urge all Members to go out and meet their T-level students and encourage colleges in their area to offer them to students.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Careers & Enterprise Company has excellent potential to connect employers with schools but few businesses, large and small, I speak to in Thirsk and Malton have engaged with it and some have not even heard of it. What more can we do to raise awareness of it to make sure young people leave school with the skills that businesses need?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Awareness is often one of the challenges of Government and it is why careers are a key pillar of our Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. We are investing over £100 million in financial year 2021-22 to help young people and adults get high-quality careers provision. This includes funding for the Careers & Enterprise Company to roll out its enterprise adviser network, on which there has been excellent feedback with more than 94% reporting that they are happy with it. Schools, colleges and businesses will be working ever more together; over 3,000 business professionals are already working as enterprise advisers, but I urge any businesses that have not yet signed up to get involved. If they want to build their talent pipeline, that is the place to start. I also urge all Members to encourage businesses to get involved.

Literacy and numeracy, digital and life skills are essential for young people to succeed at work, but progress on closing the attainment gap has stalled—indeed, it has gone into reverse—so will the Minister say exactly what steps the Government are taking to ensure that all children reach their full potential?

Obviously it is vital. There has been much disruption during the pandemic. The first thing is to ensure that all children are back in school and able to stay in school and enjoy all their lessons. All of us will have been to schools and seen the joy in children as they go back to where they belong.

In addition, as the Minister for School Standards has made clear, up until the pandemic the attainment gap was closing; it had narrowed by 13% at the age of 11, and by 9% at the age of 16. Of course, the pandemic has had implications. That is why we have put forward a considerable long-term plan to help recovery in our schools, and every school will be working on that in the next year or two, but we are always focused on the most disadvantaged children and on making sure that we narrow that attainment gap after the terrible record of the last Labour Government.

But today’s Institute for Fiscal Studies report shows that two in five children did not even get minimum learning time during covid school closures, half a million left school this summer having received no catch-up support whatsoever, and the Government are funding just 10% of what Sir Kevan Collins says is needed for recovery. Will the Government finally adopt Labour’s children’s recovery plan? When we say we will invest in the skills young people and employers need, we really mean it.

We set minimum requirements for all schools for what was required in terms of lessons, and of course we provided extra support, with BBC Bitesize, the Oak National Academy, additional devices—all the support we could. Clearly, it took a bit of time, because we were responding to a pandemic. However, it is clear that under the education recovery fund, which will remain under review, we have millions and millions of student tuition hours still to be taken. Many students are signing up for it; many of them will be receiving that additional support right now in classrooms. However, this is not a short-term solution; there will be longer-term answers.

Topical Questions

I would like to update the House on what my Department is doing to support the successful return to education. We remain committed to reducing disruption to children and young people’s education, allowing schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face learning. Schools are maintaining proportionate protective measures such as testing, ventilation and extra hygiene to keep pupils and staff safe. On-site testing will be offered as students return, followed by regular at-home testing. Students aged 16 and 17, as well as younger children aged 12 to 15 in eligible groups, are encouraged to take up the offer of the vaccine.

Russell Scott Primary School in Denton had an extensive £2.7 million refurbishment a few years back. Unfortunately, the work was done by Carillion just before it went bump. Some £670,000 has been spent patching the structural problems caused by its works, but another £5 million is needed, and even then, Tameside Council is not convinced that the building will be fixed. This is serious, so may I ask the Secretary of State for an urgent meeting to look at how we can help Russell Scott give the children there the very best education in the very best buildings?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Russell Scott Primary School. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Berridge would be very happy to meet him and other representatives to discuss in detail some of the challenges that the school is facing.

I just remind everybody that we need brief and punchy questions. I call Jason McCartney to set a great example.

T3. Sixth-form education will play a pivotal role in building back better after covid. Will the Secretary of State join me, please, in supporting an increase in base rate funding for sixth-form students to at least £4,760 in the forthcoming spending review? Will he also please agree to meet members of the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education, which I co-chair? (903307)

I would be absolutely delighted to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education. He will no doubt be aware that we have already been putting extra resources into 16-to-19 education. An additional £400 million was awarded in 2019. We recognise that it is important to invest in the quality of estate, which is why we are putting £1.5 billion into upgrading that estate.

Earlier this year, in June, I stood at this Dispatch Box and confronted the Minister about the number of nurseries and childcare providers that were closing because of the Government’s inability to fund the early years sector properly. The Minister accused me of scaremongering. Since June, there has been a further loss of 500 childcare providers in the sector, which brings the net loss for this year alone to nearly 3,000. Will the Minister make up for dismissing the concerns of parents, children and carers by providing targeted funding for the early years sector from this Government?

The Ofsted data from March shows a 4% dip in the number of childcare providers since 31 August, which is a fall largely driven by childminders and carers, not nursery settings. Sufficiency is the key measure and we have not had any reports of sufficiency issues in early years settings since they reopened in June 2020. We put £3.5 billion into our early years entitlements because we care about childcare.

The Turing scheme has exceeded expectations, with 40,000 placements across 150 locations. Ministers met Scottish journalists and education providers when applications opened. A total of 28 Scottish institutions have successfully applied for over £7.8 million in funding.

The Council for At-Risk Academics has called on the UK Government to set up a fellowship scheme for scholars at risk in Afghanistan similar to the PAUSE scheme in France. Will the Secretary of State consider implementing such a scheme?

I think we all recognise the amazing work that academics and teachers did in Afghanistan, doing so much to support education there. We would certainly look very closely at all options to support people who are most vulnerable as a result of the Taliban regime.

T7. We now know from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that the chance of 12 to 15-year-olds ending up in intensive care with covid is two in a million. Given that statistic, is it still proportionate that millions of children are losing school days this week to be tested for covid? (903311)

My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that we will be reviewing the need for children to be doing home testing at the end of September. If there is not a requirement to do that, we will be looking at removing it. It is important that we continue to keep these matters under review. That is why we will be doing so at the end of this month.

T2. Disabled children and those with high needs have suffered disproportionately as a result of missed education and a lack of assessment. There is a huge shortage of educational psychologists, which is delaying the drawing up of education, health and care plans. Can the Minister tell me what steps she is taking to help those children to get the services they need and to catch up? (903306)

We have increased the high needs budget by a record £2.3 billion, which is over a third over the past three years. We are also making good progress with the special educational needs and disability review, which has inevitably been a bit frustrated by the pandemic and changed the issues we are looking at, but we absolutely want all pupils to have access to the education they deserve. That is why our recovery funding has also been extra tilted towards those in specialist settings.

T9. As my right hon. Friend knows, maths makes an invaluable contribution to our economy and our way of being, whether that is in computing, encryption, artificial intelligence or even the development of the covid vaccine. The London Mathematical Society has been raising awareness of maths through its “Protect Pure Maths” campaign. Will he tell the House what he is doing to encourage more people to study maths at university and to support the Government’s science, technology, engineering and maths agenda? (903313)

We have seen a real revolution in maths over the last 10 years, with maths being the most popular subject to take at A-level. This has been supported not just by changes in the curriculum, in terms of how people are learning maths, but by the introduction of new specialist maths schools that are making sure that young people have the opportunity to excel in mathematics, which is so vital.

T4. At the University of St Andrews in my constituency, a number of students are unable to start their studies due to difficulties getting visas and visa decisions. Is the Minister for Universities aware of these delays with international students and what conversations are being had with the Home Office accordingly? (903308)

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member. I work very closely with my colleagues in the Home Office to assist them and make this as smooth as possible, as international students are vital to this country, not just economically, but culturally and for our society.

T10.   Thank you, Mr Speaker—I was going to wear my headset especially for you, but I could not find anywhere to plug it in. My right hon. Friend recently had a meeting to discuss defibrillators in schools, but will he give us an update on where that will happen and how we can make sure that schools are safe for everyone? (903314)

It was incredibly moving to speak to Mark King and listen to his tragic experience of losing his son, Oliver—he was joined by Jamie Carragher as well. It really does focus us on the need to do as much as possible to encourage schools to have defibrillators. That is why we will look at changing the regulations, which are underpinned by secondary legislation, to ensure that all schools have defibrillators in the future and hopefully prevent such a tragedy visiting more families.

T5. Safeguarding young people in statutory settings such as schools must always be a priority, yet the same children in community settings are being exposed to huge risks, including consuming large volumes of alcohol, and being exposed to drug dealing and sexual exploitation. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the lack of youth provision for our young people and the importance of putting these services in place, like on the Little Knavesmire in York? (903309)

I absolutely agree that we need to have more for our young people to do, which is why it has been so brilliant over the summer to see our amazing holiday activities and food programme, which has given young people access to opportunities that they never had before and helped to give them confidence, build their wellbeing and close the attainment gap, as well as providing food. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member to find out more about what is happening in her constituency.

It was great to visit the excellent Ilfracombe Church of England Junior School’s holiday activities and food programme, but this was one of only a handful of these programmes in my rural constituency. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that more students can access them in the future?

I thank all those hon. Members who visited their HAF programmes this summer. They had so much fun and I am delighted that participation was so high. It is the first time that we have ever had this type of project for our children. Local authorities are already setting out their plans for this Christmas. Let us make sure that we get to even more kids.

T8. Over the past decade, there has been a 47% decrease in drama participation and a 36% drop in music participation in schools. A broad curriculum is vital to young people’s life chances, yet access often depends on parents’ ability to pay for these activities. I heard what the Minister had to say about the music curriculum but unless the Government commit to providing the resources to all schools to provide creative arts education, young people will be let down. What will the Minister do about it? Will he provide that funding? (903312)

We are committed to arts education. The proportion of those who are taking at least one GCSE in an arts subject has remained broadly stable over the past 10 years. We are also committed to very significant funding for arts and music projects, with £620 million over the past three years, including £79 million for the 119 music education hubs and £148 million for the music and dance scheme. We are very committed to the arts and to drama in our schools.[Official Report, 7 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 2MC.]

Will the Secretary of State kindly speak to the Secretary of State for the Home Department about getting visas for the 12 at-risk Afghan scholars—some still in hiding, some in Pakistan—who have been awarded sponsored places by high-quality British universities and who need the visas to take them up?

I will most certainly undertake to do that. We have seen the education community in the United Kingdom coming together to support those who want to resettle from Afghanistan to this country; we also want to look at the opportunities for those brilliant, amazing people from Afghanistan and the part that they can play in our education system in the UK.