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Topical Questions

Volume 702: debated on Monday 1 November 2021

The Chancellor’s announcement last week in respect of my Department’s spending plans was about skills, schools and families. For schools, that means a cash increase of £1,500 per pupil by 2024-25, compared with 2019, as well as almost £2 billion further to catch up on lost learning. For skills, it means £3.8 billion of investment over this Parliament to ensure that people can access high-quality training and education, thereby opening the door to good jobs and driving forward our plan for growth. For families, it means support for the most disadvantaged, boosting childcare and ensuring that no one is left behind.

I warmly welcome the £1 billion-worth of recovery funding that was announced in the spending review to help children catch up after the disruption caused by covid. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about how that funding will be deployed to help disabled children access services that have been impacted by the pandemic?

The new recovery funding will help schools deliver evidence-based approaches to support the most disadvantaged pupils, including eligible pupils with special educational needs and disabilities or education, health and care plans. That funding is on top of this year’s £8.9 billion of high-needs funding for children with more complex needs, and there is £42 million for projects that support children and young people with SEND.

The Government’s own early years health adviser, the right hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), has said that every family in England should have access to a local hub, with parent and child support services. That is exactly what Labour ensured while in government, by building 3,600 Sure Start centres; this Government have closed 1,000 of them and then provided piecemeal funding for what they call “family hubs” in only half of local authorities. If the Secretary of State will not match Labour’s ambition for families, will he at least match the ambition of his early years health adviser, who, I notice, is in the Chamber?

Where we disagree, respectfully, is that there are now 3,000 family centres. All the evidence suggested that the Sure Start scheme invested in buildings rather than in the families we needed to reach. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) was absolutely on the right track in championing the first 1,001 critical days. I saw that at first hand at the family hub in Harlow—I was with the Chairman of the Education Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon)—which combined multi-agency services to bring in the families we really want to reach, not just the families who are capable of accessing Government services. That is the big difference. My hon. Friend the Minister for Children and Families will lead on the launch of 75 such hubs, which will make a real difference to the families that we need to reach.

T7. My teenage constituents Amy and Ella Meek created the charity Kids Against Plastic to campaign against the use of plastic, and they are currently running the very successful Plastic Clever Schools initiative to encourage schools to reduce plastic usage. Their work was recognised at the weekend, when they were crowned green champions at this year’s Pride of Britain awards. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Amy and Ella on their success and in meeting them to discuss their ongoing work and to see what more can be done to rid schools of single-use plastics? (903963)

I would be delighted to join my hon. Friend to meet Amy and Ella to discuss their idea and the resources they have created through their Plastic Clever Schools campaign. Only last week, in a debate in the House, I discussed the importance of teaching about climate change and sustainability in schools. I am looking forward to visiting, this Friday, the Rivers multi-academy trust, to learn about how it incorporates sustainability into its curriculum.

T2.   Schools in my constituency of Wansbeck and right across Northumberland already face a backlog of repairs of up to £80 million, and now face a huge hike on energy costs—48% on gas and 26% on electricity. The dilemma for headteachers in constituencies such as mine might be heating or learning. Where is the support and how does this fit in with the Government’s levelling-up agenda? (903958)

I point the hon. Gentleman to the Government’s £1.8 billion investment in the condition of schools this year. We continue to invest in schools. I was delighted to see in the spending review that £2.6 billion additional funding to drive up provision in high needs and special needs.

T8. After a long-fought campaign, I am delighted that Orchards Academy has been given the funding to be rebuilt. Will the Minister join me on a visit to Orchards so that he can see the difference that this funding will make to the local community in Swanley? (903964)

I am pleased to hear that Orchards Academy is one of the first 100 schools to benefit from the schools rebuilding programme. I will certainly join my hon. Friend on a visit.

The presence of anti-vaxxers outside schools throughout the United Kingdom is something that should concern us all, particularly as we enter the winter months. What work is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that young people are safeguarded against dangerous misinformation, and what work is being done to counter the misinformation that they are being given?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her important question. A unit at the Cabinet Office has been working with social media platforms to highlight anti-vax misinformation and to take it down as quickly as possible. I continue my work with the Home Secretary to make sure that no one feels under threat in any of our educational establishments from anti-vaxxers.

I am so grateful to my right hon. Friend and to our brilliant new children’s Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), for their commitment to giving every baby the best start in life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that absolutely key to the success of family hubs is that, unlike under the old Sure Start scheme, every family can have midwifery visits, health visits, advice for mental health and breast-feeding support and that that is what makes a real difference to every new family?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. The Budget announcement rightly demonstrates our commitment to family hubs and start for life. Family hubs bring together services for children of all ages with a great start for life offer at their very core. I very much look forward to working with her to ensure that they deliver for parents, carers and, importantly, babies.

T5. Last week, the Chancellor set out in his Budget that per pupil funding in schools in England will return to the same level as in 2010. However, with teachers overstretched, class sizes growing, the attainment gap widening, school budgets squeezed for a decade and the devastating impact of the pandemic, this commitment will mean little for schools in my constituency. Can the Secretary of State honestly say to parents and teachers in Coventry that winding the clock back to 2010 is a sustainable way to fund our schools? (903961)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I visited Coventry West Academy—I know that it is not in her constituency, but it is certainly a fantastic school that is being rebuilt with more than £30 million of investment. It will be operationally net zero and built in Coventry, not far from where the school is. Teachers have gone above and beyond in everything that they have done. I thank them as well as school leaders from the bottom of my heart for what they have done. Of course the increase of £1,500 per pupil in the core schools budget from 2019-20 is a big step forward as is the recovery funding of £5 billion.

May I welcome the Secretary of State’s early focus on illiteracy and tackling illiteracy? As a proud dyslexic, I ask him whether he agrees with me that we cannot tackle illiteracy unless we ensure that all those with neuro-diversity, including dyslexics, get identified and the support that they need to learn properly.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. He has been a champion for some of the new technologies and new evidence emerging around the world about identifying and screening for dyslexia. I will happily meet him and have a look at what we can do to scale that up in the United Kingdom.

When a child has a parent who goes to prison, too often the support services are all focused on the needs of the prisoner and are run by the Ministry of Justice. Is the Children’s Minister prepared to meet the charity Children Heard and Seen and me, so that they can hear the views and support needs of the children who are left behind, particularly where parental contact might not be appropriate?

We recognise the impact that having a parent in prison can have on a child’s wellbeing, behaviour, mental health and learning. That is why we have clear statutory guidance that support should be based on the needs of the child, not solely the characteristic of having a parent in prison. Of course I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss this important issue further.

I was very sad to see that Professor Kathleen Stock decided to step down from Sussex University following a sustained campaign of bullying and harassment. Will my right hon. Friend outline how the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will uphold freedom of speech in our higher education institutions?

I, too, was horrified by what has happened in regard to Professor Stock, who has had to resign due to sustained harassment and bullying. This cannot be tolerated on our campuses, which is why the Government are delivering a freedom of speech and academic freedom Bill that will ensure that universities not only protect, but promote free speech. I welcome at this opportunity—

I was shocked to learn on a recent visit to St James’s Catholic Primary School in Twickenham that parents were being asked to donate to fund pupils’ recovery from the pandemic. Although last week’s announcement was welcome, it is still only a third of the amount that the Government’s own adviser recommends for education recovery. Will the Minister commit to the additional £10 billion?

As the hon. Lady says, the additional £1 billion of investment in recovery is welcome. More importantly, it is also evidence led. We need to ensure that we follow the evidence to the interventions that make the most difference, and that is exactly what we are going to do.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House what work is under way to ensure that the key stage 3 and 4 curriculum is aligned with the jobs of the future, not just the jobs of today?

My hon. Friend raises a hugely important point, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss it. As I read across the enormous breadth of my new brief, I recognise that meeting the challenges of the 21st century through the curriculum is essential.

Four hundred and thirty-nine pupils were absent from school with covid-19. Of course, that is impacting on their education, but the real crime is the fact that they want their vaccines and are not getting them. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that pupils do get their vaccine and we stop this delay?

The school-age vaccination system is working. This week, the Health Secretary again announced a big drive in schools to ensure that we continue to protect and vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds as we did through the holiday period and, of course, before that when we began the programme. It is big push to ensure that we vaccinate and protect those 12 to 15-year-olds.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my admiration for our wonderful, world-leading universities sector, and that he is aware of my campaign for a new university in Milton Keynes. Does he agree that the best way to underline the reputation for the quality and integrity of our world-leading institutions is to ban so-called essay mills?

The condition of the buildings at Witton-le-Wear Primary School is really good, but the conditions for learning are not, given that there are partition walls between the classrooms because the school was built for 50 children, rather than the 80 who are currently there. Will the Minister meet me to discuss Witton-le-Wear Primary School and what can be done for the future?

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can I ask the Secretary of State to clarify what he meant by “3,000 family centres”, because we know that they are not 3,000 family hubs?

Does the Secretary of State want to answer? Does somebody want to clarify whether that is right or wrong? Secretary of State, go on.

The family hubs are a new investment. There are local authorities that have reconfigured how they do things, but there are 3,000 centres that serve those families in different ways—that may be virtual or physical.