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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 702: debated on Monday 1 November 2021


The Secretary of State was asked—

Arts Courses: Funding Reductions

1. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of reductions in funding for arts courses in higher education on the provision of those courses. (903933)

We value excellent provision in all subjects, including the arts. We recently rationalised the strategic priorities grant to better meet the funding needs of high-cost, strategically important subjects, including in science, technology, engineering and maths.

I know that the Secretary of State studied engineering, and as a chartered engineer myself, I believe it is essential to invest in STEM skills. However, doing so at the expense of arts subjects shows that the Government really are not serious about our future economy. How will he ensure that our £111 billion creative industries have the skills and people they need when he is cutting in half the subsidy for arts subjects? Is he aware that only a fifth of our artists, performers and so on are from working-class backgrounds as it is?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning my engineering background. As part of the same reform programme, we have asked the Office for Students to invest an additional £10 million in our world-leading specialist providers, many of which specialise in arts provision. On providers losing funding in the reallocation as we send a clear message on STEM, I remind her that that income loss amounts to about 0.05% of those providers’ estimated total income.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that arts subjects do not necessarily lead to arts careers? Does he know, for example, an honourable gentleman who, after doing a philosophy, politics and economics degree at Oxford, became a shopkeeper and now happens to be the Mayor of the West Midlands?

Indeed I do, and he is a great Mayor who is transforming the city of Birmingham and the rest of the west midlands. My hon. Friend is right to remind the House that subjects such as PPE are incredibly important and that many leaders in industry do not necessarily have STEM degrees.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. As a neighbour, and possibly a friend, it is good to see him here.

This nation has long produced some of the best creatives in the world—in fact, the arts are a powerhouse for the country’s economy—yet the Government have a myopic view on the value of everything. Their present focus is that ballerinas should be coders, but for decades people from low-income households in particular have not just benefited from their discovery and study of the arts but gone on to enrich this country of ours and, at the same time, generated soft power. I think of people such as Danny Boyle, Tracey Emin, Annie Lennox, David Bowie and Alison Lapper—the list is endless. People’s lives are infused with the arts as they listen to music on their iPods, read fiction, attend museums and watch TV dramas, dance and so on. Given that the UK creative industries are truly global-leading and make such a significant contribution to our economy, why are the Government so determined to limit people’s social mobility and our wider economic success?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—I think he is—for his question, although I completely disagree with him. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the arts play an incredible role in enriching minds, especially young minds, and in inward investment to the United Kingdom and exports from the UK. We continue to value high-quality provision in a range of subjects critical to our workforce, including the arts. That is why I mentioned the work of the Office for Students in reinvesting an additional £10 million in our world-leading specialist providers, many of which specialise in arts provision.

Covid-19 Management in Schools

Teachers and school leaders have made a huge contribution to the nation’s efforts, and we are grateful for their hard work. Schools continue to receive core funding throughout the pandemic, regardless of any periods of reduced attendance. The 2021 spending review has confirmed significant funding increases, with a cash increase for schools averaging £1,500 per pupil by 2024-25.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s answer. I have met heads at Bosworth Academy in Desford and Hastings High School in Burbage, who welcome the funding they have had throughout covid but are concerned about what could happen to staffing budgets in particular because of absenteeism through covid. Does the Secretary of State have a plan to deal with that, and will he meet me to hear their concerns so that we can work out a solution?

Of course I will meet my hon. Friend. We recognise that some schools are concerned about pressures and have made available a range of school resources and management tools to help them get best value from their resources. I just remind the House that the increase of £1,500 per pupil by 2024-25 is compared with 2019-20.

England’s near 400 maintained nursery schools were not eligible for exceptional costs funding, and they therefore had to bear the burden of covid themselves. The Government’s announcement last week of the continuation of supplementary funding for three years is a welcome step in the right direction, but will the Secretary of State confirm that it will cover inflationary pressures and the national living wage increase? Will he meet the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), me and the other officers of the all-party parliamentary group on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes to ensure that those outstanding centres of excellence in some of the most deprived communities in the country get the funding that they deserve?

The hon. Member will recall that when I was Minister for Children and Families, I met the all-party parliamentary group, an incredibly important group, which I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), the current Children and Families Minister, will continue to engage with. We have confirmed that continuation of supplementary funding for maintained nurseries through the spending review period, which provides the sector with long-term clarity. I am happy to meet the hon. Member and the APPG to go through the details.

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend to his place and thank him for the big Budget increases in education, particularly the 42% increase in cash terms for skills.

Will my right hon. Friend continue to make the case for a longer school day? We know from the Education Policy Institute that it increases educational attainment by two to three months, especially among disadvantaged pupils. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, a longer school day increases numeracy by 29%. Will my right hon. Friend at least consider some pilot schemes in disadvantaged areas around the country whereby we can have a longer school day?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Education Committee for his question. The priority has to be those children and students who have the least time available to recover. That is why the £800 million for 16 to 19-year-olds for an additional 40 hours of education is so important, plus the £1 billion going into secondary and primary, making a total of £5 billion of recovery money. There are excellent examples in some multi-academy trusts of a longer school day, which I will look at. The average school day is now six and a half hours, and I would like to see everybody moving towards that.

The NHS covid recovery fund is an important measure to help address the backlog of operations and patient care. Will the Secretary of State set out, following any conversations between the Department, the Treasury and the Department of Health of Social Care, how much of that budget has been earmarked for additional capacity for children with disability and care needs, children and adolescent mental health services, and special educational needs and disability provision, which is quickly becoming a crisis in our schools?

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, has been championing the additional £2.6 billion investment in SEND that we have received from the Treasury. That includes money going into mainstream schools to increase that provision. It is important, as we await the review of SEND, that we make the investment now to create places so that parents do not feel that they need to go to court with their local authority to get an education, health and care plan.

May I press my right hon. Friend on the issue of maintained nursery schools? Of course, I welcome the three years of supplementary funding that has been confirmed, but those schools are in severe financial distress, they have found it harder than any other schools to cope with the cost of covid, and the schools in my constituency do not quality for supplementary funding. When are they going to get the help they need to survive?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who was a doughty champion of her maintained nurseries even in my time as Children and Families Minister. I am happy to meet her to go through the details that are specific to her schools, but the additional funding has been welcomed by the maintained nursery sector.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post, and I welcome the other Ministers who are new in post. Despite our political differences, I hold them all in very high personal regard.

On 19 July, I put it to the Secretary of State, who was then Vaccines Minister, that the only way to have stability in schools come the autumn term and to protect the wellbeing of students would be to offer the vaccine over the summer months. He chose not to. As a result, just in recent days, I spoke to a principal who said that schools are no longer primarily places of learning; they are logistical centres, performing twice-weekly testing, facilitating the vaccine roll-out and dealing with local covid outbreaks. Instead of having a wall of protected adults, which the Secretary of State told me would be the case, students are faced with a wall of pinched and angry anti-vaxxers, who are preventing them from getting into school by bullying and harassing, and interrupting their school flow. Will he accept Labour’s proposal for exclusion zones around schools for the duration of any vaccine roll-out programme, and will he apologise to the 200,000 students and their families who are currently off school because he chose not to implement the measures that would have kept them there?

I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his question and his remarks about the team. I remind him that it was the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that initially did not make the decision and then went further and asked the four chief medical officers to make that decision. Throughout the vaccination programme, we have operated by taking the advice of the JCVI and of the chief medical officers. We moved swiftly the moment the advice was made available to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds. Of course, through the holiday period, that was expanded to out-of-school vaccination, and now that they are returning to school, that continues at pace.

However, the shadow Minister is right to highlight the dangerous behaviour of some anti-vaxxers. There is no place for anti-vaxxers harassing or coming anywhere near school leaders, and I have the reassurance of the Home Secretary that she will make available any resources that the sector needs to ensure that those people in our schools are protected and able to get on with the job of teaching and protecting children.

Travel to School: Rural Communities

3. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure that children in rural communities with limited public transport are able to attend school. (903935)

Local authorities must provide transport for children of compulsory school age to attend their nearest school if they cannot walk there because of distance, route safety or special needs. During the next spending review period, authorities will receive an extra £1.6 billion a year to maintain vital services such as that.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s reply. As a former teacher, I very much understand the value of education, but in the past few months I have been concerned to hear of constituents having difficulties getting children to school because of limited public transport and school bus places. I know that my hon. Friend will agree that it is vital to ensure that children do not miss out on learning, so I would be grateful to hear what steps are being taken to ensure that children in rural areas, particularly with limited bus transport, are able to attend school, and whether he has discussed this matter with colleagues in the Department for Transport.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As he says, as a former teacher, he recognises the benefit of children being in schools. I can assure him that the Department regularly talks to the Department for Transport about school transport. Last year, we gave Somerset over £1.1 million of additional funding for school and college transport in response to the need for social distancing on public transport. I shall continue those conversations.

Of course, far too many children in rural areas end up getting driven to school, but does the Minister agree that when they finally arrive at their destination, they will be slightly surprised to find that this Government’s ambition for funding is just back at the level that they inherited from the last Labour Government in 2010?

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that funding levels are considerably higher than they were in 2010. We were also delighted to deliver real growth in funding over that period, which many of us have long campaigned for.

Independent and State School Partnerships

4. What plans he has to help encourage partnerships between independent and state schools in (a) Bassetlaw and (b) England. (903936)

The Government are committed to cross-sector partnerships across England. We are aware of the partnership in Bassetlaw between Worksop College, an independent school, and 11 local state schools. We continue to work constructively with them to encourage more schools to engage with such partnership working.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He mentioned Worksop College, an independent school in my constituency, which offers chemistry roadshows for local state primary schools, hosts a weekly parkrun for local junior school pupils and does a lot of other community work. Does he agree that such independent/state school partnerships can be a key part of educational recovery? Does he welcome the forthcoming “Celebrating Partnerships” report from the Independent Schools Council, and will he therefore encourage all schools to get involved in cross-sector partnerships?

The short answer is that I will, and I welcome another question from another former teacher on the Conservative Benches. Such partnerships can form a key part of economic recovery, and I welcome the forthcoming “Celebrating Partnerships” report. I am very pleased to note that my noble Friend Baroness Barran has written the foreword for that important publication.

Lifelong Learning and Skills Development

As set out in the spending review, we are investing £3.8 billion more in further education and skills over the Parliament as a whole. We are supporting adults to get the skills that they need through the adult education budget and delivering on the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and welcome him to his place. Following last week’s phenomenal investment in education catch-up, does he agree that the catch-up funds, along with the new T-levels being offered at Darlington College, part-funded through the towns fund, will be vital as we create new high-skilled, high-wage technical jobs up and down the country?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am delighted that Darlington College will offer T-levels in education and childcare and in engineering and manufacturing from next year. If we can make T-levels as famous as A-levels, Mr Speaker, you and I will have done something really great by the end of this Parliament. I am grateful for the efforts of Darlington College to help learners to catch up with their education following the pandemic by making good use of the 16 to 19 tuition fund, introduced in 2020.

About a third of my constituents in East Surrey do not have a level 3 qualification, so I am hugely supportive of the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee. I am also tremendously lucky to have a brilliant further education college, East Surrey College, to deliver it. Does the Secretary of State agree that the success of that programme will rely on our ability to let people know that it is available, and will he set out some steps on how he is ensuring that the right people know so that we can get the maximum uptake?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We know that now more than ever we need to invest in adult skills and training. The lifetime skills guarantee gives adults in colleges just like East Surrey College the opportunity to develop the skills to succeed in work throughout life. I was the apprenticeships tsar under the coalition Government, and if you had told me that a Prime Minister would introduce this, I would have bitten your arm off. We have to make this famous, and we can do that through the work of everybody in this House taking the message out to their constituents.

But since 2010, funding for adult education has been slashed in two and funding for further education has been cut by a third. Of course, it was this Government who scrapped the union learning fund, which was transformative in moving people into skills for the future economy. Could the Secretary of State set out exactly how he will invest in skills and what the skills strategy priorities are, in the light of the fact that the Government seem to be making demands for skills that they simply do not have in the economy?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I can set out precisely how we are taking this forward: we are investing £2.5 billion—if we take the Barnett funding, it is £3 billion—in the national skills fund. The Budget confirmed that further investment through the national skills fund will reach just over half a billion pounds—£554 million—by 2024-25. That will include extending the eligibility for about 400 free level 3 courses to more adults and further expanding skills boot camps. We will announce more details in due course. On qualifications, the free courses for jobs offer is another intervention in the economy, and the boot camps are an incredibly successful intervention in the economy, producing skills through heavy goods vehicles boot camps and others. Strategically, it is about making T-levels, apprenticeships and apprenticeship degrees absolutely equal to A-levels and degrees from university.

Given that so many of the current labour shortages are in so-called unskilled jobs such as HGV driving, in which the Road Haulage Association tells me that there are more than 100,000 vacancies, why is so much funding for career retraining focused on levels 3 and above? For example, the advanced learner loan is available only for levels 3 and above, which means that a HGV driver who wants to retrain has to self-fund.

As always, the hon. Lady makes an important contribution to the debate. It is important to remember that we are focusing on tactical interventions such as bootcamps and our current work on kickstart, which has £2 billion, and restart, which has £2.9 billion. The strategic aim is that by the end of this Parliament we ensure not only that T-levels are embedded and at scale, but that apprenticeships continue the journey of quality that we began when we introduced the new standards.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his place; he has made a brilliant start as Secretary of State. The emphasis that he is placing on further education and skills is the very opposite of myopia, if I may offer that observation to the House.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the extraordinary institution that is the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering in my constituency—a transformative model of higher education and further education together, focused on skills, and an extraordinary lift and shift model for levelling up. Does he share my view that this is something that the Government should be really leaning into and supporting for the longer term?

I certainly share my right hon. Friend’s priorities and ambition. More importantly, if we can make this work, it truly is scalable and can be a model for other parts of the country in our levelling-up agenda.

I, too, welcome the new Secretary of State to his role. The Protect Student Choice campaign warns that many students might struggle to enrol on so large an occupation-specific qualification as T-levels at the age of 16. By withdrawing funding from BTECs, how will the Secretary of State guarantee student choice?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I want to just squash that misrepresentation: we are not withdrawing funding from BTECs. BTECs that are of high quality and are valued will continue, but it is only right that we look at the landscape and see where quality lies and how we can increase the ladders of opportunity, not take them away from people.

Food Standards in Schools

We already have robust regulation in place around food standards in schools, established by the Requirements for School Food Regulations 2014. The regulations apply to all food provided in schools, making compliance mandatory for all maintained schools, including academies and free schools.

Children’s health is so important to their life chances, so the research of the young people at Jamie Oliver’s Bite Back 2030 foundation is very concerning: it shows that school food standards are routinely not maintained. What can we do to ensure that they are upheld?

School governors have a responsibility to ensure compliance and should appropriately challenge the headteacher and the senior leadership team to ensure that the school is meeting its obligations. Should parents feel that standards are not being met at their child’s school, they can make a complaint using the school’s own complaints procedure. My hon. Friend is a strong advocate for healthy and nutritious school meals; I would be happy to meet him to discuss the issue further.

Condition of School Buildings

We have allocated £11.3 billion since 2015 to improve the condition of schools, including £1.8 billion in this financial year. Our new school rebuilding programme will transform 500 schools over the next decade. We expect to start the selection process for the next round by early 2022.

Ilkley Grammar School in my constituency has a roof prone to leaking, has internal damage and is in desperate need of repair. Last year, the situation got worse, with the roof collapsing in a small part of the school. Unfortunately, Ilkley Grammar School has already had two bids to the condition improvement fund for a roof replacement rejected. Following last week’s news of more funding for schools, may I make an urgent plea to the Minister that he consider granting funding for any future proposal that we submit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing the case of Ilkley Grammar School to my attention, which he has certainly done effectively. The condition improvement fund prioritises significant condition need, keeping buildings safe and in good working order. It has supported more than 1,400 projects at more than 1,200 schools and sixth forms during the current financial year. Applications for the 2022-23 round will be assessed according to the criteria that will be published shortly.

I’ve only got three kids. [Laughter.]

Anyway, the lovely market town of Sleaford is growing, which is causing capacity issues for both the boys’ and the girls’ grammar school sites, which are fairly constrained in the town centre. Thanks to the bequest of a very generous lady, the school has identified a site for a joint grammar school building. May I ask my hon. Friend for his support and that of the Government as part of the school rebuilding programme?

I know that my hon. Friend has championed this issue, and indeed has been visited by Ministers from the Department, including the former Minister for the School System, Baroness Berridge. The school rebuilding programme will be targeted at schools in the worst condition. While I understand that there are merits in the proposed relocation and merger, we must make hard decisions about how we prioritise use of the Department’s budget, but of course I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend and discuss this further.

The grounds of Tipton St John Primary School in East Devon have been flooded for the second time in a week. Previous flooding of the school led the Environment Agency and the Department for Education to warn of a risk to life. Earlier this year, plans to move the school to Ottery St Mary were rejected by local councillors. Will my hon. Friend please include flood risk in the criteria for the next phase of the school rebuilding programme?

As one who represents a constituency where schools have been flooded, I am sympathetic to the issues my hon. Friend has raised. The Department is aware of the flood risk to the school, and is working with the relevant parties to find a solution. We have consulted on how to select schools for the next round of the school rebuilding programme, and we are currently considering the extent to which flood risk will be part of the selection criteria, alongside other condition and safety concerns.

May I again call attention to a physical safety issue in schools in England? Sprinklers are already mandatory in Scotland and Wales. What recent assessment has the Secretary of State made of the benefit of mandatory sprinkler systems in English school buildings?

This is certainly an issue which the Department keeps under review, and I should be happy to speak to the hon. Lady about it in more detail.

Higher Education: Learning Lost to Covid-19

9. What steps he is taking to support (a) universities and (b) students in higher education to make up for learning experiences lost as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. (903941)

The teaching staff at our universities have done a fantastic job in delivering high-quality teaching throughout the pandemic, but I am sure everyone will agree that there is no substitute for face-to-face teaching. Last week I wrote to all providers emphasising the importance of face-to-face provision, not just in teaching but in the rich extracurricular activities that should be provided for students to ensure that they are given a fair deal.

I welcome the Minister back to her role, and I agree with her about the fantastic job that universities have done. However, the Office for National Statistics reported recently that nearly 40% of first-year students had shown symptoms of depression and anxiety this autumn, and similar numbers felt unprepared for university because of the loss of in-person learning during the pandemic. What support is the Government giving stretched universities to ensure that both new and continuing students succeed despite the difficulties that they have faced, and will the Minister take this opportunity to deny rumours that the Government are planning to add to their worries by making graduates on lower incomes pay more of their student debt, by reducing the repayment threshold?

Throughout the pandemic we have prioritised the welfare and wellbeing of students, and we will continue to do so. We will respond to the Augar report shortly. As for the transition of students to university, we have worked with universities on that. We have held a session with more than 200 schools and higher education providers, and published a guide to assist with the transition. We have invested £15 million in mental health and welfare support, and with our help £3 million has been provided for Student Space by the Office for Students. It is this Government who continue to support students.

The Minister is doing a first-rate job for students in promoting freedom of speech on campus. Does she agree, however, that it would not help students to recover from everything they have been going through and everything they have lost during the pandemic if they faced the prospect of having to pay back already excessive student loans at a lower threshold? Does she also agree that too many universities have become academically indiscriminate cash cows for overpaid university administrators?

In response to Augar, we will be reporting shortly. We want to ensure that a more sustainable student finance system exists. We want to drive up the quality of higher education provision, ensure that courses meet the skills needs of this country, maintain our world-class reputation and promote social mobility.

I welcome the new Secretary of State and his team, who are also new, with the exception of the Minister for Further and Higher Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), although I of course welcome her as well as she returns to the Front Bench. I welcome the entire team. She has quite rightly commended university staff for the job that they have done over the past 20 months in supporting students as they shifted their entire courses online, but those same individuals are now facing severe cuts to their retirement benefits—essentially a 35% cut to their pensions and lump sums. Given the work that these staff have done over the pandemic, what action is the Minister taking to ensure that this brutal pension reduction will not go ahead?

I am deeply concerned about this issue, and that is because of the threat of strikes. Our students are now in a position to have face-to-face teaching, and I would urge every lecturer to reconsider taking strike action. Strikes have not helped the situation before, but they have impacted students who deserve a fairer deal.

National Tutoring Programme

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the national tutoring programme in improving the educational attainment of pupils in the north of England. (903942)

The national tutoring programme reached 308,000 pupils in 2020-21 and this year it is expanding further to offer high quality tuition for up to 2 million pupils across the country.

I know that the Secretary of State is as concerned as I am about children in my constituency reaching their full educational potential, but I am concerned that only 240,000 enrolled on the national tutoring programme in its first year, that it has only a third of the funding that his own Government adviser put forward for covid catch-up and that funding per pupil will not reach 2010 levels for another three years. Can we see some evidence that the Government’s proposals are working? For example, can we see granular information about how the national tutoring programme is reaching the most disadvantaged children in our communities?

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. She is always assiduous and follows the evidence. I am also grateful to her for coming to the Department on another matter to do with further education. The academic years independent evaluation is taking place and will assess the programme’s impact on pupils’ educational attainment in all regions, including the north, and we will of course publish that. I want to share with the House some of the latest reported figures on the national tutoring programme. It is going well in all parts of England, and provisional figures from our delivery partners show that so far this year 3,822 schools have engaged with the programme through the tuition partners and academic mentors. The latest reports show that 475 academic mentors have been placed in schools in the most disadvantaged areas of England. On top of this, all schools are sharing the £579 million to recruit their own local tutors.

I would like to thank the School Standards Minister for his recent visit to Burnopfield Primary School in my constituency to look specifically at the national tutoring programme. However, at a recent headteacher cluster meeting, some of the smaller primary school leaders were concerned at the amount of paperwork involved in accessing the scheme. Will the Secretary of State look at the amount of bureaucracy involved, to ensure that the national tutoring programme can reach as many children as possible in every school?

I give a great shout-out to Katie Vickers, the academic mentor that my hon. Friend and the Minister for School Standards met at Burnopfield Primary School. My hon. Friend will recall that when I was vaccines Minister, I was able to cut through some of the bureaucracy and get more retired doctors and nurses to come back and vaccinate the nation. I will happily look again with the Minister for School Standards at any bureaucracy that gets in the way and we will get rid of it.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his post, and I congratulate him and his new team on their appointment. By the end of the national tutoring programme period, nearly 2 million young people will have left school without support, including, it is estimated, more than half a million in the north. Meanwhile, the new cut-price Randstad contract has left schools facing over-complicated bureaucracy and delayed tutoring—although Randstad did manage to award a contract to itself. Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the performance of Randstad’s management of the contract?

I am never satisfied until we have delivered. Ultimately, we can have an arms race about how much we can spend, but it is all about outcomes. When the hon. Lady sees some of the independent evaluation of the programme delivered by my predecessor, she will see that we focus on outcomes, and that is what she should also focus on.

Yes, but tutoring is reaching just one in 16 pupils this year, and the attainment gap is 18 months at GCSE and widening. The Government failed to use the opportunity of the Budget to deliver the investment in education recovery that their own expert called for. Why will the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister not match Labour’s ambition for children’s futures?

All I would remind the hon. Lady is that, if we look at the league tables, England is doing well under a Conservative Government and will continue to do well. If she will only shed the tribal politics and look at the evidence—as I will, and I will present it to this House—then we can get somewhere with delivering real outcomes for the most disadvantaged people in our country, which I hope she cares about as I do.

Young-People: Securing High-Quality Jobs

12. What steps his Department is taking to help support young people in securing high-quality jobs. (903944)

I am proud to say that our plan for jobs is working, with unemployment falling to 4.5% last month. Our £3.8 billion skills revolution will ensure that young people have the skills they need to access those jobs, with T-levels, with the largest-ever expansion of traineeships and with an incentive of £3,000 for employers hiring apprentices, creating new pathways for high-quality employment.

Blyth Valley is currently at the forefront of the green industrial revolution, with many fantastic businesses such as the Offshore Renewable Energy Catapult in Blyth and Merit in Cramlington, which can provide a wealth of opportunities to our young people. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me so that we can discuss how to best meet the educational needs of our young people and employers, and bridge that skill gap to ensure we have the best facilities for all the pupils in Blyth Valley?

We have embarked on a skills revolution that brings together our business and education communities to ensure that all courses are of a high quality and fit for purpose. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who is an excellent champion for his community.

I chair the women and enterprise all-party parliamentary group, and we are about to deliver our latest report, which focuses on skills and education. The Government skills bootcamps have been a fantastic innovation, but can my right hon. Friend provide more detail on how successful they have been in encouraging and inspiring young women and girls into new careers, particularly in more male-dominated industries?

Our programmes and reforms are designed to ensure that all students get the chance to undertake high-quality learning. Our digital bootcamps had 47.9% female attendance, and every student gets an interview, including in male-dominated industries, because we are the party and the Government of opportunity.

Covid-19 Closures: Educational Disadvantage

14. What recent comparative assessment he has made of the potential educational disadvantage due to school and classroom closures as a result of the covid-19 outbreak for (a) those eligible for the pupil premium and (b) other pupils. (903946)

According to Renaissance Learning, pupils were one to three months behind in their learning in summer 2021, with improvements since the spring. Pupil premium pupils were half a month further behind in primary and two months further behind in secondary. We have announced a new £1 billion recovery premium to support disadvantaged pupils, with extra support in secondary, to reflect the evidence. That is part of our £4.9 billion investment in education recovery.

I thank the Minister for his comments. Research from education charities, such as Teach First, has found that during the pandemic children from disadvantaged backgrounds were twice as likely to have fallen behind as those from more affluent ones. I am particularly concerned about pupils with special educational needs in Hampshire, who are falling behind where they should be. Has he considered any further measures to help them?

My hon. Friend is right to raise these concerns. We have consistently prioritised children with special educational needs, for example, by providing additional SEN uplifts in the catch-up and recovery premiums for 2020 to 2022. We also set an expectation that those with education, health and care plans would be able to attend schools throughout the pandemic and ensured that special schools remained open. We announced an additional £1 billion of recovery funding directly to schools to support catch-up over the two years from the academic year 2022-23.

BTEC Qualifications

17. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of removing funding for BTEC qualifications on students. (903950)

I can confirm, following what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, that we are not planning to remove funding from all BTECs. We will continue to fund high-quality qualifications, including BTECs, that can be taken alongside, or as alternatives to, T-levels and A-levels where there is a clear need for skills and knowledge. We will be led by the evidence and the final decision on qualifications reform will be taken in due course.

I welcome the Minister’s response to the question, but the Department’s own equalities impact assessment concluded that those from SEND black and disadvantaged backgrounds, and males were

“disproportionately likely to be affected”

by the plan to scrap the majority of BTECs. The City of Liverpool College offers 21 BTEC and 51 level 3 qualifications, and 1,400 learners would be impacted by the proposed changes. Is it not time that he listened to the calls from the Protect Student Choice campaign to rethink this damaging proposal?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is a powerful advocate for the people of Liverpool. I would, respectfully, draw her attention to page 13 of the “Government consultation response: impact assessment”, which states:

“Following the additional flexibility on the future academic landscape, and the accompanying updated mapping and data, students from Black ethnic groups are no longer anticipated to be disproportionately highly affected. “

She raises an important point, which we are mindful of; we want all students, at all levels, to have the best opportunities. That is why we are reviewing level 3 qualifications and level 2 qualifications, so that we can have a qualifications system that gives students the skills they need, to get the jobs they need, for the economy we want.

Given that 4,500 young people in Liverpool alone studied BTECs in 2020—the figure is an underestimate, as it does not include older BTECs—the Government’s plan to scrap the majority of these qualifications will leave thousands of students in cities such as Liverpool without a viable pathway at the age of 16. Will the Secretary of State and his Ministers listen to the 24 education bodies in the Protect Student Choice campaign and the 118 parliamentarians who wrote to him about this issue, or perhaps to former Conservative Secretary of State Lord Baker, who has described the plan as an “act of educational vandalism”? Despite what the Secretary of State and the Minister have said, will they rethink the proposal to defund most BTECs?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question; it is nice to have two questions from Liverpool back to back. I must tell the House that we are undertaking an historic reform of technical education in this country. We want technical qualifications, at all levels, that are designed with employers, to give students the opportunities they need. At 16, that will mean that some students will get gold-standard level 3 qualifications that will lead to work, degree-level apprenticeships or higher education. For some, it will mean excellent level 2 qualifications, which will lead to apprenticeships or to work, or to our lifetime skills guarantee, announced by the Prime Minister in September 2020, allowing everybody to get a level 3 qualification.

Clearly, it would have been sensible for the Government to have finished their evidence and understood the outcome of the policy before starting to undermine BTECs by announcing that they would defund many of them. There is a widespread body of opinion that many of the 230,000 students studying level 3 BTEC qualifications might not be able to get on to that qualification in future. Will the new Minister—I should have welcomed him to his place; I do so late in my question—tell us in which year the Government are likely to meet their target of having 100,000 students studying T-levels? Will he guarantee that those changes will not lead to a reduction in the number of students studying level 3 qualifications in the future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his belated welcome.

We just had a historic spending review for skills in this country, with £2.8 billion of capital for skills, including money to deliver new T-levels across the spending-review period. Those T-levels will give more students the opportunity to progress into work at a higher level. Our level 2 review will enable more students to progress into work at the right level for them.

Topical Questions

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.