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Volume 708: debated on Monday 31 January 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Education Settings: Safe Learning

1. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that pupils can learn safely in education settings. (905326)

Mr Speaker, I am answering this question on behalf of the Secretary of State, who, as you know, is isolating having tested positive for covid over the weekend.

May I offer my condolences to the family and friends on the day of the funeral of the late Member for Birmingham, Erdington?

Our top priority remains to protect face-to-face education. To reduce transmission of covid-19, regular testing continues across education and childcare, with over 109.5 million tests completed. A further £8 million will support the in-school vaccination programme. To improve ventilation, we have delivered over 353,000 carbon dioxide monitors and purchased up to 9,000 air cleaning devices.

I express my sincere condolences to the Mother of the House and the entire family on the sad loss of the Member for Birmingham, Erdington.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in thanking and congratulating the headteachers and staff at all our schools—those in Harrow in particular—for keeping schools open as often as possible so that children can learn, as they should, in the classroom. Will he, however, join me in expressing the view that forcing young children to wear a face covering for seven hours a day is unfair, particularly for those who are hard of hearing?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the immense contribution of teachers, leaders and all who work in our schools. We have consistently seen 99.9% of education settings open to support face-to-face education. The Secretary of State always said that, while masks in classrooms were brought in for a period as we tried to study the impact of omicron, they should not be in place for a day longer than necessary. We no longer recommend them, and no child should be denied the opportunity to study for refusing to wear a mask.

Safety includes warmth. What will the Minister say to schools such as the one that contacted me this morning to say that, due to its £30,000 energy bill, it will not be able to manage its budget this year? It is very worried about what it can spend on fruit, books, salaries and all the other things that a small primary school needs. What urgent action will he take?

We recognise some of the pressures facing schools and, indeed, all parts of the economy as a result of rising energy costs. That is part of the reason why we have provided a £4 billion increase for schools in the next financial year, which is allowing them to deliver on all the pressures that they are currently facing.

The Centre for Social Justice report published yesterday showed that more than 100,000 “ghost children” are still not returning to school for the most part, almost 800 schools are missing entirely a class-worth of pupils, and more than 13,000 children in year 11—a critical exam year—are severely absent from school. Will the Department get the proper data to find out where those children are and what is happening to them? Will it do as the CSJ has recommended and use the forecast underspend from the national tutoring programme to appoint 2,000 attendance officers to work with families to get those children back into school and learning again?

I share my right hon. Friend’s passion for ensuring that children are in school. I have discussed with the Children’s Commissioner the designation of “ghost children”, which we both feel is somewhat unhelpful. These are flesh and blood children who deserve to be in school and have the chance to benefit from face-to-face education. I assure him that addressing attendance and ensuring that they all have the opportunity to be safely in school is a top priority.

I, too, want children to be taught in safe spaces. That brings me yet again to the plight of Russell Scott Primary School in Denton, where, as the Minister knows, a botched £2.7 million refurbishment by Carillion has left the school with wrecked footings; a leaking roof; defective fire safety measures; inadequate drainage that floods the school with raw sewage; and playing fields that still resemble the Somme. It needs £5 million for that to be put right, or a new build. Baroness Barran wrote to me last week and basically said, “Tough—there’s no money.” That is not acceptable, is it? This is not levelling up. Let us get the purse strings opened and rebuild Russell Scott.

The hon. Gentleman is clearly a champion for that school—he has made the case for it many times before. I would be surprised if that was the content of my noble Friend’s letter, because a programme is due to open shortly, as he will know. Of course, we cannot pre-empt the programme, but I know that he has made a strong case for his school.

Ofsted’s inquiry last year into the Everyone’s Invited campaign, which exposed sexual harassment and other safeguarding concerns in schools, focused on the importance of mandatory sex and relationship education, as did Ministers. As a result of the actions of this Government, such education is mandatory for all school-age children. Will the Minister look to Ofsted to do further work on how schools are implementing relationship and sex education, because I am sure Members across the House are concerned about that?

I know from discussions with Her Majesty’s chief inspector that this is a priority for Ofsted, and we continue to work together on it. We are also supporting teachers to build their confidence in teaching this newly required subject, which my right hon. Friend has campaigned for strenuously.

With much more school work being carried out online and with digital literacy among pupils rising extremely quickly, what protections are the Government putting in place to ensure that online platforms are a safe learning environment for young people?

This is an important area of work within both the computing curriculum and the advice on keeping children safe in education. We certainly want to ensure that children are safe whether they are learning in the classroom or online.

Low-quality University Courses

2. What steps his Department is taking to tackle the provision of low-quality university courses. (905327)

I believe that every student has the right to a high-quality education. The Government are committed to tackling low-quality courses and ensuring that students and the taxpayer see a return on their investment. We have worked with the Office for Students to tackle low-quality higher education courses and it will now, for the first time, impose stringent minimum standards for drop-out rates and progression to graduate jobs.

Wiltshire has no university, as my right hon. Friend knows, but we have something better in the form of Wiltshire College, which provides a fantastic range of courses for young people and adults, including at the great agricultural campus at Lackham. Will she join me in congratulating Wiltshire College on its retention of students and the progression that they achieve? It does that by working with employers to design courses that work for the local economy. Does she encourage universities to learn from the college sector how it does that?

I agree completely with my hon. Friend’s assessment of Wiltshire College. Like so many further education colleges, it works closely with local businesses to ensure that residents get the skills that local employers need. That is why the Government are investing in further education. We are providing investment to transform the Lackham campus into an agritech hub, with £1.2 million of capital funding for Wiltshire College, as well as £4 million for the delivery of T-levels to ensure that learners continue to have high-class learning facilities.

Parents and families are rightly proud of a child or family member who secures a place at our world-class universities, yet last week many will have seen the Minister belittle their courses and hard work. Her new proposal to fine universities if they do not meet universal thresholds risks punishing universities with more disadvantaged, black and ethnic minority or mature students, who are more likely to take different routes through to higher education. Why is she putting barriers in the way of universities seeking to widen access to higher education?

It is a shame that the hon. Member did not pay attention to the announcement we made. Is he actually saying that we should expect the dumbing down of some courses, because those who are disadvantaged do not deserve high quality? Is that really what the Opposition stand for? Let us not forget that many universities are excelling at supporting disadvantaged students to complete courses and go on to get graduate jobs—look at Sheffield Hallam, Nottingham Trent and Kingston. I believe that every student deserves a high-quality education, and so should the Opposition.

It is not just the quality of courses that the Department and my right hon. Friend are working on; it is also the experience of students. Will she give an update on what steps she is taking to ensure that universities stop using non-disclosure agreements to silence the victims of sexual abuse?

Last week, I launched a pledge, working with the likes of Universities UK and Can’t Buy My Silence. It is very important that universities stop using non-disclosure agreements in respect of sexual assault, sexual abuse and harassment. They are morally inept and have no place on our campuses. I encourage every vice-chancellor to sign the pledge.

Student and Graduate Finance: Cost of Living

3. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) student and (b) graduate finance in the context of the cost of living. (905328)

21. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of (a) student and (b) graduate finance in the context of the cost of living. (905347)

We have frozen maximum tuition fees for the fifth year in succession, saving a typical full-time student finishing a course in the 2022-23 academic year over £3,000 in fee loans for the three-year degree. Maximum grants and loans have increased by 3.1% for the current academic year, with a further 2.3% increase announced for the next academic year.

As a result of their extremely high tuition fees—the highest in the world—English students leave university with three or four times the amount of debt that Scots do. Freezing the loan repayment threshold—along with the national insurance hike and the high, rising costs of food—significantly affects young graduates. Why are the Government failing to support students and graduates during this cost of living crisis?

As I said, this will be the fifth year in succession that maximum fees have been frozen, saving a full-time student finishing a course over £3,000. With median non-graduate salaries at £25,000, it is right that we work to make the system sustainable and fair for the taxpayer, including those who do not choose to attend university, especially when only a quarter of those currently starting a course will actually fully repay their loan.

Despite what the Minister said, the fact is that the Government have broken yet another promise that the student loan repayment threshold would be frozen. That means that, when student loan repayments are taken into consideration, together with the national insurance tax hike, graduates earning just over £27,000 a year will pay a marginal tax rate of an eye-watering 42.25%. Will the Minister explain to the House why she thinks that is fair?

It is important that we strike a fair deal for students, graduates and the taxpayer. Only a quarter of those who take out a loan now will fully repay it, and as the hon. Member knows, the terms of these loans are very different from commercial loans. For instance, if someone loses their job or their salary reduces, their payments will change immediately.

Universities have a duty to provide students with value for money and they have undoubtedly been receiving a poorer education through remote learning. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, now that plan B measures have ended, every university should welcome back students to lecture halls, or provide refunds?

I do agree. Online learning can be a great way to supplement and enhance learning, but let me be clear: it should not be used as a cost-cutting exercise and it should not be used to avoid utilising face-to-face provision. As the Secretary of State has outlined, we expect universities to be up-front and transparent about what students can expect, and I am personally calling vice-chancellors where we are concerned that this is not happening.

Surely the ministerial team realise that student finance is in a terrible mess, with many students struggling to pay money back and many students refused a mortgage because of their student debt. This is a serious situation. The Government have got to get a handle on it and do something about what is going on, particularly in relation to the weak and enfeebled Office for Students.

Contrary to the hon. Member’s assertion, mortgages do not take into account student loans and we should put that on record. We are committed to a sustainable higher education funding model that supports high-quality provision, meets our skills gaps and maintains the world-class reputation of our higher education institutions, which is exactly why we will respond to the Augar review in full in due course.

Supporting Young People into High-quality Jobs

We are increasing spending on skills by £3.8 billion over this Parliament—that includes growing apprenticeship funding to £2.7 billion by 2024-25—and our skills revolution will ensure that young people have the skills that they need to access high-quality jobs through skills bootcamps, T-levels, traineeships and apprenticeships.

The Government’s apprenticeship scheme has done a fantastic job in giving young people from across Keighley and Ilkley a route to high-skilled work. I saw that at first hand when I visited Byworth Boilers and met Suzanne Rutherford, Jago Harry and Curtis Daly, all of whom made that progression through the apprenticeship scheme. What plans does my right hon. Friend’s Department have to ensure that success stories such as the Byworth Boilers apprenticeship scheme are repeated all across the country?

As so many companies, such as Byworth Boilers, are recognising the benefits of growing their own, there have been 130,000 apprenticeship starts in the first quarter of this academic year, up 43% on the same period last year and 3.5% higher than before the pandemic. Apprenticeships can be transformative, and I am sure that Suzanne Rutherford, Jago Harry and Curtis Daly will find that for themselves.

Apprenticeships are the best way to support young people into high-quality jobs, but Government data shows the total number of apprenticeships fell by almost a quarter from 2001 to 2019, even before the pandemic. The levy has been described by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development as having failed by every measure and that it shuts out small businesses and young people. Is the Minister really satisfied with this failure? Can she explain why no reforms to apprenticeships are proposed in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill?

Our high-quality apprenticeship do not just satisfy us; they satisfy the thousands of people undertaking them. There have been 130,000 apprenticeship starts in the first quarter of this academic year, which is up by 43% on the same period last year.

I am really proud of the many outstanding schools in my constituency, but it is important to remember that a degree is not the only route to a successful career. Does the Minister agree that apprenticeships are just as vital as university degrees, and will she arrange for the right Minister to meet me ahead of Apprenticeship Week, starting 7 February, to discuss what more can be done to promote apprenticeships?

Both I and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), who is the Skills Minister, will be delighted to meet our hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with him on the importance of apprenticeships, and that is why we have just launched our new skills campaign, Get the Jump.

Does the Minister realise that many of the routes into quality jobs are in those very universities that she has been disparaging through her tax on so-called low-value courses? Does she agree that we need a much better metric than salary outcomes? Just because someone is not very well paid does not mean that they are no value.

It is a shame the Opposition did not read our announcement the other week. In fact, we have not based it on salaries; we have based it on graduate outcomes, so there is a range of jobs that people can progress into.

Freedom of Speech: University Campuses

Freedom of speech is a fundamental principle of higher education and this Government will not allow the continued self-censorship of individuals facing negative repercussions for lawfully expressed views, which is why our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties.

The University of Buckingham in my constituency has twice topped the charts for the university with the least restrictions on free speech, and under the outstanding leadership of its vice-chancellor, Professor James Tooley, proposals have been drawn up calling for new laws to ensure that academics can sue an institution or use the complaints scheme if it fails to protect them from targeted campaigns of harassment related to their academic freedom. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister work with the University of Buckingham to make that new protection a reality?

I welcome the University of Buckingham continuing to champion free speech. Our Bill contains exactly those sorts of measure to further strengthen protection for individuals who are being harassed for expressing their lawful views, and I am sure my hon. Friend will support it when it returns to this House.

Will the Minister agree to visit my constituency to see the efforts of some of our schools, including Eden Boys School, which is a feeder school into the University of Bolton, to make sure we get the balance right between freedom of speech and respect for religious values?

Of course I will be delighted to visit Bolton North East. Maintaining free speech in our universities and political impartiality in our schools while also respecting religious values is imperative, as tomorrow’s generation shape their views.

Lifelong Learning and Skills Development

One absolute priority is to ensure that everyone can obtain the skills that they need at whatever time in life is right for them. That is why last week we launched our Skills for Life campaign, which will promote skills offers among adults, including our level 3 offer of apprenticeships and skills bootcamps.

It was an enormous pleasure to welcome the employment Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies), to Wolverhampton last week, when we met jobseekers of many ages who were taking part in a “car maintenance for electric vehicles” course delivered by City of Wolverhampton College as part of the Department for Work and Pensions’ sector-based work academy programme or SWAP scheme. How can the Minister help providers like that college offer more courses of that kind, which are so valuable in helping people into work?

I commend the work that City of Wolverhampton College is doing on electric vehicle maintenance. When we see excellent providers working with employers, we also see the best outcomes for students, which is why we are investing an additional £3.8 billion in further education and skills over the current Parliament.

The truly outstanding Northern College in Barnsley is the only adult residential college in the north of England. Can the Minister assure us that it will continue to receive its residential uplift funding in future years?

Technical Qualifications: Strengthening their Value

14. What estimate he has made of the number of students studying for (a) BTECs and (b) T-levels in the 2021-22 academic year. (905340)

We are reforming technical education to support progression and meet employer needs. Our initial figures show that nearly 5,500 new students started T-levels in September last year, more than four times the number who started in 2020. We do not routinely publish take-up data on individual qualifications such as Pearson BTECs, but we will publish in June the number of students who were studying for applied general qualifications at the end of 2021.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating my constituent Adele Hughes, who is working as an apprentice with Raytheon Technologies, on being awarded a bronze medal at the recent WorldSkills UK Competition, and does he agree that Adele’s remarkable achievement demonstrates the value of technical qualifications and apprenticeships?

I am delighted to extend the Department’s congratulations to Adele. What we are seeing through our apprenticeships programme at the moment is the study and achievement of world-class skills in England. That is why I hope my hon. Friend, and all other hon. Members, will join me next week in celebrating National Apprenticeships Week.

More than a quarter of a million students are studying BTECs, but the Government are rushing ahead with a set of changes about which parents and schools and colleges are very concerned, especially as BTECs are taken up disproportionately by the most disadvantaged families in the most disadvantaged communities. One of the issues that have been raised with me is the limited number of opportunities and qualifications that will be available under T-levels, in comparison with BTECs. Can the Minister explain how a levelling-up agenda is being advanced by a reduction in the range of opportunities available to such students?

It was a central finding of the Sainsbury review, led by a Labour peer, that the vocational qualifications system should be simplified. What we are doing is creating world-class gold-standard qualifications that will give students meaningful work placements that will enable them to acquire qualifications designed by employers to give them the skills that the economy needs.

Apprenticeships and technical qualifications are extremely important to my constituents. Following the success of my jobs fair last year, I am organising an apprenticeships fair on 11 February this year. Will the Minister agree to open the fair, or to come along at some point during the day and support those young people in my constituency who are looking for an alternative route into work?

Covid-19: Transmission in Schools

As I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), the Government continue to support a number of proportionate measures to reduce the spread of covid-19, testing regularly across settings, delivering 353,000 carbon dioxide monitors and up to 9,000 air cleaning units to ensure adequate ventilation, and committing a further £8 million to support the in-school vaccination programme. All that helps to protect face-to-face education.

The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advised the Government to improve ventilation in schools in May 2020. It warned the Government to prepare for winter in July 2020. More than 10 million days of in-person teaching were lost last term. More than 400,000 children were out of school with covid last week. A quarter of schools faced teacher absences of 15% or more. Air cleaning devices are more than 18 months late, and are being offered to fewer than one in 30 classrooms. Why did Ministers ignore the advice about the importance of ventilation in schools for so long?

The Government have consistently guided that ventilation is an important part of the measures against covid. We have had a world-leading programme of rolling out CO2 monitors so that we can identify the classrooms that need extra support in this respect. Roughly 3% of classrooms came back as needing the extra support and the Secretary of State confirmed last week that every school that meets the criteria and that has applied for that will get it, paid for by the Department for Education. This is a successful response to ensure that schools have the support that they need.

Vaccination is key to protecting our children’s learning in the classroom, yet 46% of 12 to 15-year-olds have still not had their first dose. One in eight children were off school earlier this month, causing more avoidable disruption to their education. Ministers missed their own target to offer every child a vaccine by October half term, so can the Minister tell the House what his vaccination target is now, and when he expects to meet it?

As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, vaccines have never been compulsory for children. We want children to have vaccines, but they are optional and something that requires consent. We are continuing to support the vaccine programme, and the Secretary of State announced last week that we have accepted £8 million from NHS England to accelerate that in the schools pillar. The community pillar continues to be available to children in this age group.

Future Funding

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on future funding for education. (905335)

At the spending review, the Government set out spending plans for the Department for Education worth more than £86 billion for 2024-25. This is an £18.4 billion cash increase over the Parliament, showing that this Government are serious about skills, schools and families across the country.

I associate myself with the remarks made by the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) about the late Member for Birmingham, Erdington.

We now know that £2.7 billion was spent on personal protective equipment that cannot be used, and that £4.3 billion of the money that was stolen during covid through the furlough scheme and other schemes is being written off by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Does the Minister share my concern about the difference that that cash could have made in meeting the target of more than £15 billion that the Government’s own tsar reckoned was needed to catch up on the days that our children have lost in school? Will she call for a review of this?

This Government are investing £4 billion extra on schools next year and £5 billion for recovery. This Government prioritise the skills of the future and the catch-up of children in schools.

Will the Minister, mindful of what she has just said, investigate how much local authorities are spending on so-called anti-racist education, which is based on deceit, spreads dismay and causes division? She will know that this is happening in Brighton and elsewhere. Will she therefore meet Don’t Divide Us—parents and teachers who are highlighting these matters—with a view to issuing guidance and if necessary taking legislative steps to prevent this kind of indoctrination?

I know that the Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), will be only too happy to meet my right hon. Friend. It is important that I remind the House that schools are subject to political impartiality, and guidance on this will be updated shortly.

Taxpayer-subsidised childcare is increasingly being taken over by large for-profit companies quartered overseas, according to new research by University College London and the Nuffield Foundation. These companies have growing debts and charge high fees to parents while having among the lowest levels of staff qualifications and pay. They are reinvesting little in childcare provision. Does the Minister believe that repaying corporate debt represents value for money for taxpayers while families across the country struggle to access childcare that they can afford?

We are investing additional funding for the entitlements worth £160 million in 2022-23. I know that the Minister for Children and Families, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), will be only too happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss this in detail.

Full membership of Horizon Europe continues to be treated as a negotiating pawn by this Government, but it is a very important source of higher education funding. When the Government talk of funding safety nets, they fail to recognise the importance of the rich collaborations that result from Horizon. When will this Government stop faffing about and make a concrete decision on the UK’s full participation in Horizon Europe?

We recognise that the ongoing delays by the EU have led to uncertainty for researchers, businesses and innovators. We have made it very clear that, in the event the UK is unable to associate with Horizon Europe, the funding that has been put aside will go to the UK Government’s research and development programmes, including those that would form partnerships internationally.

Forced Marriage and Child Marriage: Information in Schools

11. What steps he is taking to provide information in schools for at-risk children on forced marriage and child marriage. (905336)

The “Keeping children safe in education” statutory guidance provides a strong safeguarding framework for schools. It sets out the role that all school staff have to play in safeguarding children, including information for staff on what forced marriage actually is, as well as signposting to further help from the Government’s forced marriage unit.

My private Member’s Bill, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill, has its Third Reading on 25 February. We are approaching a crucial time for young people at risk of child marriage. Many child marriages happen when children are taken abroad, generally in the summer holidays and often to someone they have never met. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can raise awareness of this issue in schools so that children know they can speak out if their parents or other relatives intend to take them abroad to be married in the school holidays and so that teachers know how to report children they consider to be at risk?

“Keeping children safe in education” is clear that all school and college staff should offer early help to children at risk of forced marriage or who are missing from education. It also signposts to detailed information developed by the forced marriage unit that outlines how schools and colleges should handle any concerns relating to forced marriage. My hon. Friend has campaigned long and hard on this issue, and of course I would be very happy to meet her.

The Reading Framework

12. If he will make an assessment of the effect of his Department’s July 2021 policy paper, “The Reading Framework”, on the quality of the teaching of reading in primary schools. (905337)

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his immense work on “The Reading Framework”. The resulting framework is a vital and evidence-based tool to enable schools to teach reading effectively. It shows that phonics is just one part of becoming a fluent reader. Teachers should also focus on speaking and reading stories to foster a love of reading. English hubs tell us that the framework has been well received, and they are delivering a series of well-attended webinars to support schools to implement its recommendations.

I am sure my hon. Friend will have seen the recent report by two education academics challenging the Government’s focus on phonics, despite all the evidence of its success in teaching children to read. Does he agree on the importance of continuing to make the case for phonics and the importance of the Government’s clear focus on the curriculum, and on how it is taught, in helping us to complete our mission to transform the life chances of every child in this country?

To coin a phrase, I agree with Nick. The evidence for phonics is very secure, and robust studies led by the Education Endowment Foundation show that phonics is extremely effective in teaching students to decode words. Schools do not teach phonics in isolation, and it is just one element of becoming a more fluent reader. Teachers must also focus on other elements of developing a passion for reading. My right hon. Friend is right that the evidence is very clear and that we should continue to follow it.

Children with SEND: Access to Specialist Support

13. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of access to specialist support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (905339)

We are conducting a review of the special educational needs and disability system. We intend to publish proposals for improvements to the system through a Green Paper for full public consultation in the first three months of this year.

The National Autistic Society ran a survey of parents and carers last summer, and it found that a quarter of parents waited more than three years to receive support for their child. Urgent reforms are needed for the 160,000 autistic pupils in schools in England to address the issues that have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Can the Minister confirm that the upcoming SEND review will include robust proposals to tackle the crisis that disabled children and their families are facing?

I recognise some of the challenges the hon. Lady faces, and I give her that commitment. We prioritise children and young people with SEND and their families in our £4.9 billion education recovery plan, and those with the most complex needs continue to receive high-needs funding, which increases to £9.1 billion in the next financial year. We have allocated £42 million this financial year to fund projects that support children and young people with SEND, including £600,000 to the Autism Education Trust.

As lockdown has been scaled down, I have been visiting primary and secondary schools to talk about mental health. What steps have been taken to improve mental health access facilities, including counsellors in all schools?

Backed by £9.5 million, we are offering about a third of schools and colleges in England a grant this year to train a senior mental health lead in their setting. Our £15 million wellbeing for education recovery and return programmes are in addition to the £79 million boost to children and young people’s mental health announced in March 2021 for mental health support teams in schools and colleges. My hon. Friend’s point is well made.

Last week, I met a fantastic local ADHD—attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—support group, who detailed to me the many delays that children are facing in receiving diagnoses and then education, health and care plans, support and treatment. What steps are the Government taking to support pupils with ADHD and suspected ADHD so that they can learn effectively and have a fulfilling educational experience?

The SEND review is all about ensuring that pupils get the right support, in the right place, at the right time and ultimately have better outcomes, and I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the issue further.

The Minister will be aware that four out of five dyslexic children leave school with their dyslexia unidentified, so will he ensure that, consistent with the answer just given by the Minister for School Standards, the upcoming schools White Paper includes action on the universal screening and teacher training that our dyslexic pupils need and deserve?

My right hon. Friend is a strong advocate on these issues. The SEND review and the schools White Paper will, naturally, have to go hand in glove. The School Standards Minister and I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss this further.

School Staff Absences

16. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of Government support to help tackle staff absences in schools. (905342)

The Department has extended the covid workforce fund to at least the February half-term, so that schools with high absence and financial pressures can continue to access these additional funds. Other measures include asking former teachers to come forward if they are available to temporarily fill absences in schools during the spring term.

On 20 January, more than 415,000 pupils were off school and 15% of teachers were absent, but only 9,000 air purifiers have been promised, for approximately 300,000 classrooms. The Minister lauds the Government response, yet Germany has promised to subsidise 80% of the cost of air cleaning equipment in all schools to ensure that education is not disrupted. Why is he failing to ensure that our pupils have similar levels of protection?

Very simply, because we are taking an evidence-based approach. We have listened to schools and we sent them the carbon dioxide monitors so that they can monitor where classrooms need the extra support. About 3% of classrooms needed that extra support and they are the ones where the devices are being provided entirely funded by the Department.

Apprenticeships: Early Years Workforce

My Department has engaged with early years employers to help them design three high-quality apprenticeships—early years educator; practitioner and lead practitioner. Since 2018-19, there have been more than 26,000 starts on early years apprenticeships. Students can also study a T-level, a new gold-standard technical qualification in education and childcare, which provides a route into either work or further study.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his commitment to making sure that every baby gets the best start to life. Does he agree that by creating more of a mixed-skill workforce we will be able to provide the continuity of care that every family wants when they have a new baby?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s considerable expertise and work in this area, and I agree with her on this, which is why we are investing £153 million in training early years staff to support learning and development, and £300 million to transform Start4Life and help family services. That £300 million is going to include funding for trials for an innovative workforce, and I look forward to talking to her about that.

School Buildings: West Dorset

Ensuring that schools are well maintained and support effective education is a Government priority. We have allocated £11.3 billion since 2015 to improve school buildings, and Dorset Council received £2.9 million this financial year in school condition allocations. We are delivering rebuilding projects in West Dorset, and our school rebuilding programme will transform 500 schools over the next decade.

Twenty-five years ago, I attended the Gryphon School in Sherborne and was schooled in temporary classrooms. I returned to the school only a few months ago, to find the same temporary classrooms, in a terrible state, being used for students today. I am making limited progress with my hon. Friend’s Department, so might he offer further support so that we can get the situation sorted out?

My hon. Friend is right to speak up for his old school. I am concerned to hear of the issues there. I understand that he met my noble Friend the Minister for the School System and senior officials. We have been engaging with the Sherborne Area Schools’ Trust on this matter and it has received £585,000 this financial year to improve its school buildings, but I would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend again.

Early Years Healthy Development Review Report

19. What steps he is taking to implement the recommendations of the Government’s Early Years Healthy Development Review Report, published in March 2021. (905345)

The Government are investing £300,000 million to transform “start for life” and family help services in half the council areas across England. That money will fund a network of family hubs, parent-infant mental health support, breastfeeding services and parenting programmes, and will allow local areas to publish their “start for life” offer.

I thank the Minister for that support, but Camrose early years centre in Northampton South faces an emergency cut that will end its 8 am to 6 pm nursery service by 1 April this year. Will he meet me to discuss alternative solutions?

Like other maintained nursery schools, Camrose supports some of our most disadvantaged children. We have confirmed the continuation of its supplementary funding throughout the spending review period and will increase the supplementary hourly funding rate by 3.5%. I would of course be happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Topical Questions

As was explained to the House earlier, the Secretary of State is currently isolating, but on behalf of him, myself and the Department, I thank the staff and young people and their families across education and childcare for their perseverance and dedication. Face coverings are no longer recommended in schools, colleges or universities. Regular testing, vaccinations and enhanced ventilation continue to help to reduce transmission and thereby protect face-to-face education, which is our No. 1 priority.

The Government will spend another £8 million to support the crucial in-school vaccination programme. After the delivery of more than 353,000 carbon dioxide monitors, we are following the evidence and delivering up to 9,000 air-cleaning devices to fulfil all eligible applications where there is less natural ventilation. Because this Government have got the big calls right, 99% of children are back in school and learning face to face.

The most deprived schools have seen the largest cuts over the past decade, with a 14% real-terms fall in per-pupil spending between 2009-10 and 2019-20, compared with a drop of only 9% for the least deprived schools. That is not levelling up. Is the Minister content that her Government are funnelling money away from the schools and communities that need it the most?

As the hon. Member knows, this Government are determined to level up, which is exactly why we have introduced a real-terms 5% increase in school funding and have the highest ever level of pupil premium.

T3. The Secretary of State is sadly unable to be with us today, but will one of his Ministers commit him to meet me to discuss the universal accreditation scheme proposed in my recently published “Poverty Trapped” paper? It would mean that universities and colleges could give credit for knowledge and skills gained not just in formal education but in work or informal settings, to make it easier, cheaper and faster to switch careers and to level up opportunities so that everyone has a better chance to succeed. (905354)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his report. I very much share his sentiments about the importance of recognising prior learning. Currently, further education providers can use their own discretion when they assess learners’ experience, but we are examining how we can encourage the greater use of knowledge in respect of prior learning. I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s invitation to the Secretary of State.

Today, I send my love to the family of Jack Dromey, who will be deeply missed by us all. Through you, Mr Speaker, I also send to the Secretary of State my best wishes for a swift recovery.

According to the most recent figures, the number of children who are out of school because of covid has risen by 34%. In the light of that, do Ministers not regret all the time and energy they have wasted on defending the Prime Minister rather than prioritising our children’s learning?

The hon. Lady may wish to play party politics, but we are focused on making sure that children can safely learn in schools.

If only that were true. It is a year this week since the Prime Minister appointed Sir Kevan Collins

“to oversee a comprehensive programme of catch-up”,

only for Sir Kevan later to resign in protest because, in his words, the Government’s plans risked

“failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.”

We can all see covid’s impact on children’s learning and wellbeing. Labour’s “Children’s Recovery Plan” meets the scale of the challenge we face, so when will the Minister finally put children first and match Labour’s ambition for their future?

I am delighted that this Government are investing £5 billion in education recovery, and that we have a Prime Minister who two years ago delivered on a key manifesto promise to take this country out of theusb EU.

T4. The main issue in schools across Hampshire at the moment is SEND provision. There is a major increase in need as more students obtain their education, health and care plans, but a significant shortfall in personnel, even though the funding is in place. Will the Minister meet me and Steve Jones of Perins School, which is in my constituency—the dreaded Zoom is absolutely fine—so that we can talk about recruitment not only of teachers, but of student-facing support staff? (905355)

Let me take this opportunity to thank all those who work in mainstream and specialist SEND settings for everything that they do. Schools have the freedom to recruit support staff to match their circumstances, and last year they recruited 6,000 more. Of course, I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.

Times Higher Education has reported that several UK universities are providing Afghan Chevening scholars with considerable financial assistance, from food vouchers to laptops. Although that is to be commended, it is shocking that the financial contribution of the UK is not covering what these students need. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to increase the financial contribution and to properly support these Afghan students?

I welcome the contribution that universities are also making to Afghan refugees. I will meet the hon. Member to detail exactly what the Government have done to support those studying here.

T6. Will the Minister join me in thanking the headteacher and staff of Ivel Valley School in my constituency? They are in discussions regarding a much-needed refurbishment. Will the Minister advise me on what the Government’s plan is for upgrading the estate of schools that deal with children who have severe learning difficulties? (905357)

My hon. Friend and I recently visited an excellent alternative provision setting—the Academy of Central Bedfordshire—and he will know that we are investing an extra £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to deliver an additional 30,000 places and to improve existing provision for children with SEND. Of course, I echo his thanks.

T2. Schools in east Hull have gone above and beyond to ensure that kids keep learning during the pandemic, and I thank each and every school leader, teacher and support staff member for that, but they have been badly let down by this Government. Last term, 10,600 school days were lost as a result of this Government’s failure. When will the Minister adopt the ambitious, comprehensive schools recovery plan put forward by the shadow Secretary of State, which will do what needs to be done? (905353)

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but we have a strong plan for recovery in schools and a strong plan for attendance, which is vital. There has been unavoidable absence as a result of covid, but we must crack down on avoidable absence, which is a reason for one of my visits to the north-east last week.

We in Stoke-on-Trent are proud to be the home of Staffordshire University, but sadly it seems that cancel culture has arrived on our doorstep after the wokerati made formal complaints about criminology professor James Treadwell for tweeting that transgender women should not be allowed in women’s prisons, citing research that found that half of women in prison have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Does my right hon. Friend share my despair over this tiny extreme minority, who wish to silence anyone whose opinion they disagree with, and will she join me in lending support to Professor Treadwell?

We are a Government who are committed to ensuring free speech on our campuses, which is exactly why we are honouring our manifesto commitment and bringing free speech legislation to the House. I point out that the University of Sussex is already being investigated by the Office for Students. Other universities should take note.

T5. Research published by the Social Market Foundation has shown that students from working-class backgrounds accepted into university are more likely than their peers to hold a BTEC qualification. After failing my GCSEs as a working-class 16-year-old, it was a BTEC in performing arts that got me back into education and ultimately into university. The Minister has already been asked this question by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), but does he agree that the decision to hastily remove BTEC funding makes a mockery of the Government’s claims to be levelling up in education? (905356)

The hon. Lady will have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State extend the timescale for T-levels on Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. I am sure that she would have benefited from being able to do a T-level when she was at school. It would have given her nine weeks of work placement, and she would have done a qualification designed with employers that would have led to a job in the economy.

Given that section 406(1)(b) of the Education Act 1996 already outlaws

“the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”,

will the Government take appropriate action without further delay against Brighton and Hove City Council, which is planning to indoctrinate seven-year-olds with critical race theory?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has been clear that critical race theory should never be taught as that—it is a contentious political viewpoint. We are working on making sure that we update our guidance on political impartiality in school, to make that absolutely clear.

T7. Upton-by-Chester High School in my constituency is rated good with an outstanding sixth form, but it keeps getting overlooked for replacement of its 1960s prefab buildings, which are falling apart. When will the Government announce the new guidelines, and will they look kindly on Upton High’s application? (905359)

I know that the hon. Gentleman recently met my noble Friend the Minister for the School System to discuss the case for that school. Cheshire West and Chester Council received £4.6 million in school condition allocations this financial year. Our school rebuilding programme will deliver 500 projects over the next decade, transforming education for thousands of pupils. The hon. Gentleman has made his case once again.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to lifelong learning and level 3 qualifications, but my hon. Friend the Skills Minister will know that many residents across the country will need significant help with levels 1 and 2 in order to access that offer. Will he meet representatives of West Notts College and me to discuss how we might be able to offer that support to people in Mansfield?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. We are reforming level 2 qualifications. The Chancellor has announced our plans for Multiply, a new project to help people with numeracy of all ages.

T8. Primary and secondary schools alike are telling me that the biggest challenge they face is covid-related staff absence. Anywhere between 15% and 20% of school staff are missing. Could the Minister confirm how many volunteers have signed up to the teacher volunteer drive? What are we doing to keep teachers in schools so that we can keep them safe? (905360)

The Government’s covid guidance is about keeping both staff and pupils safe. On the hon. Lady’s point about volunteers, we published figures at the beginning of January that show that, at that point, responses from about a quarter of supply agencies showed that 585 teachers had come forward in answer to that call to arms. We expect the full number to be significantly higher.

According to the latest Ofsted inspection ratings, only 55% of Derbyshire secondary schools are rated good or better, compared with a national benchmark of 80%. If levelling up is to mean anything, it must be about fixing the glaring educational inequality. Will the Minister agree to meet me and fellow Derbyshire MPs to discuss how we can improve education standards and opportunity for all in Derbyshire?

The chatty mums network of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe recently met me to raise concerns about the cost of living and lack of affordable childcare. What assessment have Ministers made of the impact of cuts to universal credit and the new Tory tax on working mums from April?

There is a substantial offer in place to support parents with childcare costs. In 2021, 328,700 children had a Government-funded early education entitlement place for 30 hours, worth up to £6,000.

Before Christmas, the Secretary of State made a statement about the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. To that grisly list has now been added Amina-Faye Johnson. He announced a review by the serious case review national panel. When will that review be published, and can the Minister assure us that it will be published in full and action will be taken?

The child safeguarding practice review panel will deliver a national independent review of Arthur and Star’s tragic deaths, to identify what we must learn, and it will report in May.

Last week, the journalist and presenter Ashley John-Baptiste shared his personal story in the BBC documentary “Split Up In Care—Life Without Siblings”. His story is not unusual, nor is it a past feature of our care system. Thousands of children removed from their families, alone and scared, are denied relationships with their siblings, despite all the evidence showing that this relationship and bond is one of the most significant and enduring. Why do this Government stubbornly refuse to make changes to the Children Act 1989 and give sibling contact for children in care?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. We have the independent review into children’s social care led by Josh MacAlister, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this important issue further.

I recently met my school leaders and heard how, in a recent inspection by Ofsted, no account had been taken of staff absence due to covid. Can my hon. Friend confirm that Ofsted should take into account covid impact when inspecting and set that out in writing?

I can say to my hon. Friend that having discussed this matter with Her Majesty’s chief inspector, I know that she does take such impacts into account. Ofsted is offering deferrals to schools facing particularly high levels of staff absence, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the case to which he refers.

Before we move on to the first statement, I assure the House that following the comments made at the start of questions—[Interruption.] I do not think that is appropriate for what I am going to say. You ought to be ashamed. I assure the House that following the comments made at the start of questions, there will be an opportunity to pay tribute to our friend and colleague the late Jack Dromey. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That will take place on Wednesday. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Members will welcome the opportunity to pay tribute at that point.

I should inform the House that given the brief period of time available to review the report, I will be allowing the Leaders of the Opposition parties a little longer to question the Prime Minister than is usually the case. I am sure the Prime Minister may wish to take a little longer at the beginning.