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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 710: debated on Monday 14 March 2022


The Secretary of State was asked—

Early Years Support

1. What steps he is taking to help ensure that families are able to access adequate early years support. (906033)

It is wonderful that the hon. Lady has returned to the theme of families; I remember the passion she showed in her time as shadow Minister for Children and Families.

The Government are investing £300 million to transform family help services in 75 local authorities. That money includes funding for family hubs, the supporting families programme and start for life services.

The Labour Government built more than 3,600 Sure Start centres, which provided a vital lifeline for many families throughout the country. This Government proceeded to close 1,000 Sure Start centres and then undertook a review of the early years sector that found that every parent and child should have access to early years support. Frankly, I could have told the Government that without undertaking a review. The review was published more than a year ago and I have not yet seen any plans for or details on having a family hub in every community in the country. When will the Secretary of State’s Department publish details of the family hubs in every community in the country? Or is this another instance of the Government paying lip service to the early years?

What the hon. Lady omitted to say was that Sure Start was a good policy that was badly implemented under the Labour Government. They focused on bricks and mortar rather than on actually reaching and helping the families we will reach with the family hubs. We will announce very shortly the half of England’s local authorities that will have evidence-led, multi-agency family hubs that will reach exactly those families—exactly like I saw when I visited the family hub in Harlow with the Chair of the Education Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon).

Institutes of Technology

The Government are investing £290 million to establish a network of 21 institutes of technology throughout the country, actively targeting the areas where they are needed the most. Wave 1 has already established 12 IOTs across 50 locations, and wave 2 will add a further nine IOTs. We are getting the best of the further education sector, alongside the best of the higher education sector and the best of British employers, to deliver world-class technical education.

It is concerning that, after two waves of IOTs, a vacuum has emerged in East Anglia that places local learners at an unfair disadvantage compared with those elsewhere. I am grateful to the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), for the briefing that she provided to Suffolk and Norfolk MPs following the decision to reject the east of England bid; will she or my hon. Friend convene a meeting of those who prepared the bid, the two county councils and MPs to agree a strategy to fill the vacuum as quickly as possible?

As my hon. Friend noted, he had a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Higher and Further Education on this issue. I know he is a passionate advocate for education in his area and wants to see the excellent success of our IOTs replicated in his region. At this time, there are no plans to extend IOTs, but we very much keep the policy under review and want to see them go from strength to strength.

SEND Green Paper

The special educational needs and disability review will be published this month as a Green Paper for full public consultation, so that we can continue to listen. Throughout the review we have listened to hundreds of organisations—including the National Network of Parent Carer Forums, Let Us Learn Too and Special Needs Jungle—children and parents.

A recent survey by the Disabled Children’s Partnership and Let Us Learn Too revealed that 60% of families with disabled children have sought mental health support because of the stresses of having to fight for basic services, while previous surveys have shown that nine in 10 disabled children are socially isolated. Given that, will the Minister outline how the Department for Education intends to use the SEND Green Paper to reduce the adversarial nature of the system and plans to improve access to mental health services for disabled children and their families?

I thank the hon. Lady for her well-put question. She is right: we want to create a less adversarial system in which parents do not have to fight to get the rights to which their children are rightly entitled. We want the best outcomes for all children with SEND in this country. The hon. Lady will have to wait only a handful more days for us to publish the review.

Can the Minister confirm that, from September, up to 3,000 new places are being created for children with special educational needs and disability through 35 new special free schools?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Through the spending review and the record £2.6 billion of investment in special school places, that will be delivered.

Digital Divide

4. What steps he is taking to help close the digital divide for children without access to the internet or adequate devices at home. (906037)

We have delivered more than 1.9 million devices to schools, colleges and local authorities for disadvantaged pupils, as part of a £520 million investment during the pandemic. We have also partnered with the UK’s leading mobile operators to provide free data to help more than 33,000 disadvantaged children get online, and we have delivered more than 100,000 4G wireless routers for pupils without connections at home.

When schools closed, the move to remote learning highlighted the digital divide in our society. Schools such as the outstanding Ursuline High School were already at the forefront of technology, giving every pupil a tablet and offering six lessons a day from home right from the start, but others did not have the kit required. For those still on the wrong side of the digital divide, every click widens the attainment gap. Aside from the emergency lockdown devices, what support is being offered to equip schools with the skills, time and kit to ensure that no child is left behind in our technological world?

Let me join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the work that the Ursuline academy did during lockdown. It is very important that schools reached out and provided the help where they could. It is important to recognise that the 1.9 million devices that were provided by the Department during the course of the pandemic were on top of around 2.9 million devices already with schools, so the kit is out there to do this. We will continue to work with colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that disadvantaged households get the technology that they need.

The Education Secretary has announced that his Department will repurpose the Oak National Academy to provide UK-wide online learning. Families facing the Tory cost of living crisis need a guarantee that data used to support learning will not add to their spiralling household bills. Ofcom’s recent affordability report found that 1.1 million households are struggling to afford broadband. With more schools delivering learning via digital means, can the Minister set out whether he intends to keep these services zero-rated indefinitely?

I am pleased to see that the hon. Gentleman has welcomed our announcement this morning on Oak. We think it is a valuable tool that will support exemplification as well as delivering online support to pupils and students. With regard to zero-rating, we welcome the fact that that is continuing and we will continue to work closely with colleagues at DCMS to see how that can be supported over the longer term.

School Buildings: Refurbishment

I recently met my hon. Friend, who has been a persistent champion of his local school. The Department provides funding annually to improve school buildings and has allocated £11.3 billion since 2015, including £1.8 billion this financial year. We have also opened the next round of our school rebuilding programme, which will transform 500 schools over the next decade.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. He will know full well that I have been supporting the Gryphon School in Sherborne to fix its dilapidated temporary classrooms. The school has just submitted a severe needs funding request in order for us to replace those temporary classrooms. Will he review that and support the submission so that we can fix the issue?

I recognise that my hon. Friend has consistently pressed the case for his old school in this Chamber and through meetings with myself and with colleagues in the Lords. The next round of our school rebuilding programme has now opened. We expect to select around 300 projects this year, and our aim is to prioritise those with the greatest condition needs. I welcome the fact that a bid has gone in from his school, demonstrating that condition need. Although I can assure him that he has done everything that he can to draw the attention of our Department to these issues, he will understand that I cannot commit to any individual school until the selection process is complete.

I cannot begin to describe how much Sale High School in my constituency needs a rebuild. There is a local financial solution on the table, which is being put at risk by Department for Education delays. Will the Minister commit to helping me bring this to a resolution today?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I just gave. Of course I am happy to make sure that the Department looks carefully at any individual bid of schools, especially where there is particular condition need. If he would like to write to me, I shall have a look at that case.

Last week I visited Derby High School in my constituency. It is a brilliant school with a fantastic senior leadership team and kids who are achieving their potential, but the structure of the building must match the ambition of each child within the school. It has been nominated for the school rebuilding programme. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to see what this Government can do to deliver for children in Bury something that the Labour local authority is not doing?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend. I understand that he has consistently championed the case of children in Bury. As I have mentioned, we have met other colleagues to discuss projects of this nature, so I am sure either I or my colleague in the Lords will be happy to meet him.

Joseph Leckie Academy has still not received the full amount that was allocated under Building Schools for the Future in 2010. Will the Minister please come and visit so that he can see the toilets, the school hall and the dining area, which are in desperate need of refurbishment?

It is always a pleasure to get an invitation to visit a school; I shall certainly consult my diary to see when I might be able to take the right hon. Lady up on that.

Ashlawn School in my constituency is outstanding, with currently the longest waiting list for secondary places in Warwickshire. There is a need to renovate many of the school’s 1950s buildings but, regrettably, it does not meet the funding criteria for the school rebuilding programme. Do the Secretary of State or the Minister have any advice for Ashlawn on how it can get buildings that are comparable to the outstanding education it offers?

The Department provides capital through a number of routes. There is, of course, devolved capital to local authorities and to multi-academy trusts, so my hon. Friend might want to look at what opportunities are available through that or through the condition improvement fund, in addition to the school rebuilding programme I have already discussed.

On the subject of Department for Education delays, residents in Newcastle North are concerned that the new Great Park Academy may be unable to open on schedule next September. Original plans were for an opening in 2020, but that has now been postponed to 2023 and the school is currently in temporary accommodation on another high school’s site. We need to see progress on this urgently. I have written to the Minister and asked for a meeting to discuss the cause of the delays. After all the disruption of the past two years, we must deliver stability for our young people. Will he work with me to ensure that we can unblock what is delaying this project?

The Minister will know of Westgarth Primary School in Marske, which is in desperate need of urgent building works. May I invite him to visit Redcar and Cleveland in the near future, to meet me and the Galileo Trust to see what can be done to support the school, its pupils and its fantastic teachers?

It sounds as though my diary will be very full, but I would certainly be delighted to come to my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Ukraine: Impact on Students

6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on (a) Ukrainian students in the UK and (b) UK students in Ukraine. (906040)

17. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on (a) Ukrainian students in the UK and (b) UK students in Ukraine. (906052)

We are working across Government to support Ukrainian students in the United Kingdom by introducing a new humanitarian route; there will be a statement later today from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on that. It will provide them with an opportunity to extend their leave to remain or switch to graduate visas. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is leading on work to ensure that UK students in Ukraine are encouraged to return.

The announcement of the UK sponsorship scheme and the news that the Secretary of State just mentioned are very welcome for Ukrainian refugees. However, as they are temporary visa holders, will the families of those students be included in the Home Office’s Ukraine families scheme? Will the Secretary of State consult his ministerial colleagues on that?

Of the 2.6 million people who have fled Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion, UNICEF reports that at least 1 million are children. A large proportion of the 200,000-plus Ukrainian refugees who will enter the UK through the Ukrainian families scheme or the homes for Ukraine programme will be kids. What plans has the Secretary of State put in place to facilitate the integration of vulnerable Ukrainian child refugees into the UK education system?

We have been working hard in the Department to ensure that we have, certainly in the initial phase, a capacity of up to 100,000 children going into early years, primary and secondary education, and into further and higher education as well.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the investigation by Theo Usherwood on LBC exposing pro-Putinist propaganda at some of our leading universities? At Leeds, Professor Ray Bush, still publicly listed on its website despite retiring, suggested that the US had chemical installations in Ukraine. That is, as we know, a lie that is being spread by the Kremlin. At Edinburgh, Professor Tim Hayward retweeted a Russian representative to the UN describing the attack on Mariupol’s hospital as “fake news”. At Leicester, Tom McCormack talks about “ludicrous disinformation” on both sides and boasts about appearing on Russia Today. Will my right hon. Friend contact these universities directly to stop them acting as useful idiots for President Putin’s atrocities in Ukraine?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Education Committee for raising this issue. The Minister for Higher and Further Education is already on the case and is contacting those universities. Putin and his cronies are a malign influence on anyone in this country buying their false narrative. I repeat: it is a false and dangerous narrative and we will crack down on it hard.

As a result of Putin’s war in Ukraine, the United Kingdom can expect an influx of a large number of young students. In the long term, they will need proper education, of course, but in the short term, could my right hon. Friend see whether he can build in some flexibility and normality so that these young people can get into schools and make friends as soon as possible?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I know that he and his family are passionate about wanting to support Ukrainians who are so vulnerable. We are making plans to make sure, as we did with the Afghan resettlement, that every child gets into the appropriate early years, primary, secondary or further or higher education, but I will certainly look at this. I think what he is getting at is that if there is a gap they may be wanting to feel welcome at their schools. I am already getting anecdotal stories about many schools where there is excitement about some of the Ukrainian children who are coming in.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

In Ireland, Ukrainian teachers are being fast-tracked through the teaching registration process to enable them to support youngsters who will be attending school in Ireland. Obviously, language will be a big challenge for these youngsters initially. Has the Secretary of State considered replicating that Irish scheme to ensure that young people coming to school in the UK will be properly supported?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point. That is one of the things I asked my team this morning with regard to the Ukrainians. Clearly, it will be predominantly women and children who are coming over because the men are fighting the Russian invaders. It is a question of whether we can get more recognition of qualifications so that Ukrainians who are able to can get work as soon as possible.

Prisoners: Retraining

The Government absolutely recognise the importance of preparing prisoners for employment upon their release. That is why we are, for the very first time, changing the law to enable serving prisoners who are close to release to start apprenticeships, helping them to retrain and upskill, and providing them with direct routes into jobs with businesses in their communities.

Retraining prisoners is vital for rehabilitation. Does my hon. Friend expect these welcome plans for prisoner retraining to reduce reoffending, leading to a safer society for all of us? Will these plans be under way as soon as possible so that we can all start to see the benefits immediately?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that reassurance. Officials in the Department for Education are working at pace with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to make sure that we tear down the barriers so that people leaving prison can have had the best chance to rebuild their lives, earn money for themselves, and contribute to their communities. We expect to make progress on that this calendar year.

Student Loan Changes: Social Mobility

8. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of changes to student loan requirements on social mobility. (906042)

Our changes mean a fairer deal for students, graduates and the taxpayer, and build on our work to drive up quality so that more young people go on to complete their education and then go on to graduate jobs, delivering real social mobility.

Decreasing eligibility, extending the repayment period and lowering the repayment threshold for student loans will disproportionately impact students from low-income families, and removing education opportunities will impact the trajectories of their lives and careers. What impact assessment has been undertaken on these changes from an equality perspective and how they will stifle student numbers?

When we published our response to Augar, we also published our impact assessment in full, but at the heart of our plans is fairness, as I have said, for the taxpayer, for students and for graduates. No student will pay back more in real terms than they borrow. This is the Government delivering on our manifesto pledge to cut interest rates.

Research by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that 70% of parents with children aged 11 to 15 want their children to go to university, but the Government do not share their ambitions. Instead, the Minister is proposing minimum entry requirements of a grade 4 in GSCE English and maths to access student finance. About 70% of pupils in England achieve a grade 4 in GSCE English and Maths, but that falls to less than half for those on free school meals. Why is the Minister prepared to sacrifice the aspirations of students and their families, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Once again, this shows the Opposition’s obsession with targets and numbers. We want an education system that delivers for the individual, whether that means going into further education, an apprenticeship or university. We want to ensure that every young person knows that whichever option they pick, it is a high-quality option.

Children with SEND: Specialist Support

9. What recent assessment he has made of the availability of specialist support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. [R] (906043)

We have been conducting a thorough review of the special educational needs and disabilities system, including looking at the specialist support for children and young people to help them to fulfil their potential. By the end of this month we will be publishing our findings and consulting on proposals to strengthen that system.

In conjunction with the University of Liverpool law clinic, I am able to put on a weekly advice surgery for parents with children with special educational needs, and that service itself is over-subscribed. There is a real postcode lottery in provision, and we have seen demand for SEND statements and education, health and care plans soar by 480% over the past five years. Can the Minister say, particularly in terms of the shortage in the workforce and in resources, and the postcode lottery, what is the Government’s plan?

We know that covid-19 has impacted particularly heavily on therapy services and other support services for children and young people with SEND. I know that a number have adjusted their delivery models. We issued new guidance in September, but I am working closely with my counterpart at the Department of Health and Social Care to try to address this issue. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to look at the SEND review, because in my view the postcode lottery and the inconsistency has to end, and with the SEND review it will.

I warmly welcome the confirmation from the Minister that the SEND review will be published this month. I am also grateful to him for the engagement we have had on how we can ensure that all children—including all dyslexic children—get the right screening and assessment so that they can get the support to be able to join in the gaining of literacy, which is so critical for success in the rest of their lives. I am grateful for his support so far, but can he reiterate that that will be central to this SEND paper?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and all the work he does in this area. It is so very important that at the heart of the SEND review, we have early identification and early support, and I look forward to continuing to work with him on this important agenda.

The Government’s own figures show that almost 50% of children with additional needs are waiting longer than five months for an education, health and care plan. One in five requests is refused and 95% of those decisions are overturned by the tribunal. Families fighting for support were promised that the SEND review would help, but two and a half years on, they are still waiting, while children are being systematically let down by this Government. What assurance can the Minister provide that the SEND review will deliver timely support for families and an end to fighting at tribunals?

First, let me say that in the next financial year, high-needs funding for children and young people with complex needs is increasing by £1 billion to more than £9.1 billion. That is an unprecedented increase of 13%, and it comes on top of the £1.5 billion increase over the past two years, but that is just the finances. Over and above the £2.6 billion we are investing in capital, the SEND review will answer many of the questions that the hon. Lady rightly poses, and she just has to wait a handful more days.

Children with SEND: Specialist Teachers

11. What steps he is taking to help ensure that there are adequate numbers of specialist teachers to support children with SEND. (906045)

We are committed to ensuring that all pupils can reach their potential and receive excellent support from their teachers. Our reformed initial teacher training content framework and the new early career framework, both developed with sector experts, will equip teachers with a clear understanding of the needs of children with SEND.

Research by the Education Policy Institute found that children from the most disadvantaged areas are less likely to be identified as having SEND than children from more affluent areas, with families in poorer areas facing higher thresholds to accessing support. Why is that the case and what is the Minister’s Department doing about it?

All teachers are teachers of SEND. We are doing a lot of work, and we will do as part of the SEND review, to ensure that teachers are equipped—but not just equipped, that they have confidence—to teach and identify special educational needs. All I would say, as I have said a few times, is that the hon. Lady should wait a handful more days for the SEND review.

Home-Schooled Children

The Government have committed to a form of local authority register for children not in school, as was detailed in the children not in school consultation response that we published on 3 February. We hope to legislate on that measure at the next available opportunity to create the duty to keep and update a register and for local authorities to provide support to home educators where they want it.

If a local authority found that illiterate home-schooling parents were unable to teach their children to read, write and add up, would it signpost them to proper adult literacy and numeracy as well as ensuring that the children could access their inalienable right to a good education?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Government guidance sets out the powers that local authorities have and the actions that they can take. He is right that the adult education budget has funding to support literacy and, with the new numeracy programme, to support numeracy. There is a role for stepping up in that space. Local authorities already have powers to specify levels of literacy and numeracy on a case-by-case basis, and having the statutory register will encourage them to use those powers.

Young People from Deprived Backgrounds: Access to Higher Education

We have asked the Office for Students to refocus the access and participation regime on real social mobility by getting students on to courses that they complete and that lead to graduate jobs, not just getting them to the door. We have also committed up to £75 million to a national state scholarship to support high-achieving disadvantaged students.

In the Secretary of State’s statement on the Augar review last month, he said:

“Access to higher education must be dependent on attainment and ability to succeed, and not inhibited by a student’s background.”—[Official Report, 24 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 489.]

Will the Minister expand on how the Department will ensure that that is the case, so that we avoid the situation overseen by the Scottish Government where people from a deprived background are now less likely to enter higher education than when they took office?

Under our Government, disadvantaged 18-year-olds in England are now 82% more likely to go to university than in 2010. We want universities to play an even greater role in improving access for those who are disadvantaged, however, so we are asking them to raise standards in schools and colleges; offer flexible and skills-based courses; tackle drop-out rates; and support students throughout university and on to graduation.

Whether we look at the national tutoring programme, which is failing to reach disadvantaged children; qualification changes that Ofqual admits will hamper progress to HE; the disparaging of university courses with higher numbers of deprived students on them; or the falling apprenticeship numbers, the truth is that this is a “Get back in your place” Government who stand as a barrier to aspiration for deprived students. Does the Minister not realise that the Government have not a shred of credibility on this subject? Their policies are the barrier to working-class aspiration, not the solution.

It is a desperate time when we have a question such as that from the Opposition, which is not even really a question. The Government are delivering on our manifesto and enhancing quality, and have aspiration at the heart of everything we do.

Order. I think I will decide whether something is in order or not, but thanks for that little lesson for me. Just to say, I do laugh when you talk about policy when the Government have been in power, so I try to balance out the political issues and objections on both sides.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is one of the most important Bills now before Parliament. When does my right hon. Friend expect the Bill to come back before the House?

I can inform the House that the Bill will be back in due course, and we can guarantee this Government’s commitment to honour our manifesto pledge to strengthen free speech in our universities, because of how important we believe it to be.

According to the Government’s own equality analysis of their reforms to student finance, those likely to see a negative impact, with increased lifetime repayments, include female graduates and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Male graduates and those from more privileged backgrounds will benefit more than average from the changes. Can the Minister explain why policies that will hinder social mobility and undermine equality of opportunity in higher education have been introduced?

Fairness is at the heart of our announcement that no student will pay back more in real terms than they borrowed. It is also about rebalancing for the taxpayer, as every pound that is not paid back by a student is paid back by a taxpayer.

Education Investment Area: Isle of Wight

14. What assessment he has made of the potential impact on education outcomes of an education investment area on the Isle of Wight. (906048)

I was delighted to announced that the Isle of Wight will be an education investment area, which will receive a range of support to improve schools. We will boost the rate of children meeting reading, writing and maths standards by 2030, ensuring that opportunity is as equally spread as talent is in our country.

The Island has made good progress in improving its education in recent years, which I am delighted about. I am very keen to get as much out of the education investment area as we possibly can, in order to drive up standards further. That ambition was evident in my recent visit, only a few days ago, to Christ the King College, where I talked to students and pupils. The Education Minister has had many invitations today, so will the Secretary of State please come to the Isle of Wight so that he can see the excellent work being done at the Isle of Wight College and at our schools?

That invitation is far too tempting to turn down, so I shall make time to visit the Isle of Wight with my hon. Friend. Of course, I will be saying more about the work we are doing in the schools White Paper.

Green Skills in the Curriculum

The science and geography national curriculums provide pupils with knowledge that underpins the development of green skills to help understand issues related to sustainability, climate change and resource use. Further, at COP26 the Secretary of State launched the Department’s draft sustainability and climate change strategy, which sets out key actions and commitments to enhance green skills provision across education.

May I ask the Minister to work across parties on this issue? For a net zero economy, we need to do far more training for green skills. Too often I find that young people, at age 16, 18 or 21, do not know the pathway. When I talk to teachers in my constituency, and indeed those in early years, they all want to prepare their children for a green economy and to provide them with green skills for wonderful jobs in the green environment. Can he work a little harder and faster towards this?

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. We all agree about the importance of this area. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that we pursue the science, technology, engineering and maths agenda. We need to work across the education piece to ensure that we are preparing people for the jobs of the future. The strategy that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State published at COP26 is a step in that direction, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we want to work across parties and across the House, and in all parts of the country, to drive this agenda forward.

Children’s Social Care

We launched the independent review of children’s social care in March 2021. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform children’s social care services and systems. We will see the review’s final recommendations this spring and I look forward to responding in due course.

We know that the first 1,001 days of a child’s life are the most influential on their health, wellbeing and opportunities throughout the rest of their lives. This is even more important in towns such as Blackpool, where health outcomes and educational attainment are already low. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the £300 million funding for the new Start for Life offer will help to address these outcomes for children and families in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our family hubs programme is being developed in 75 local authorities, over and above the 12 in which the programme is already being rolled out, bringing together services for children of all ages and responding to the needs of the whole family. At its core is the Start for Life offer, which includes support for perinatal mental health and breastfeeding, as well parenting programmes. On top of that, there is the £200 million expansion to the Supporting Families programme. I understand that the Secretary of State is visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency in the coming weeks.

Higher Education: Improving Quality

For the first time ever, the Office for Students is setting minimum thresholds for completion and for progression rates to graduate jobs. We are also consulting on stopping the uncontrolled growth of low-quality courses.

The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) suggested that it was an injustice to introduce minimum requirements for going to university, but does the Minister agree with me that the greater injustice is that one in five students feels that their course did not add any value to their career? Moreover, the reforms to interest rates will now mean that nobody will pay more than they borrow in real terms.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. From September 2023, we are reducing interest rates on student loans to the retail price index only. This, combined with the tuition fee freeze for over seven years, means that students can graduate with up to £11,500 less debt from the off.

I fully support the idea of minimum eligibility requirements to maintain the high quality of our degrees. However, will my right hon. Friend assure me that students who do not meet those requirements will have alternative routes open and available to them, including via foundation years or college courses, that will allow them to progress subsequently to university when they are ready?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Too many young people are pushed on to courses that they are not ready for at the moment, which is why we are capping the cost of foundation years to enable more people to use this as an access route. We are also introducing the lifelong loan entitlement, which will make higher education and higher technical education much more flexible.

Political Impartiality in Schools

The Government are committed to ensuring that children and young people receive a balanced education. The Department has recently published new political impartiality in schools guidance, which will help support teachers in tackling sensitive issues in the classroom in a politically impartial way.

A minority of woke-warrior teachers think it is acceptable to push extremist nonsense on to pupils, such as white privilege, and try to cancel important historical figures, such as Sir Winston Churchill. However, these teachers are also aided and abetted by some trade unions, such as the Not Education Union. The failed and disgraced NEU demanded that the welfare state was reformed before approving of pupils going back to school with its ridiculous 100-point plan, and its president blames NATO instead of Vladimir Putin for the illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine. Will my hon. Friend outline how we will hold politically motivated trade unions to account and prevent them from using teachers as a gateway to push their far-left agenda?

I have to say that my hon. Friend always speaks out bravely from his own personal experience as a teacher, and I see that he has done so in his Telegraph article today. Pupils must form their own political views, and schools should not indoctrinate or encourage children to pin their colours to any particular political mast. The new guidance will help schools to make good decisions about working with external agencies and ensure that any engagement does not breach their legal duties.

The harrowing scenes in Ukraine have shaken the world, and it has been reported that a number of students from the UK are still trapped in Ukraine. Can the Minister please confirm whether contact has been made with those students, and what support he can provide to them?

Order. Minister, that is nothing to do with the question. The problem is that supplementaries have to be linked to the question. If the hon. Lady tries again in topicals, she may just catch my eye.

Topical Questions

The United Kingdom has a proud history of supporting refugees in their hour of need. In the last few years alone, we have committed to welcoming over 100,000 Hongkongers, 20,000 Afghans and now an unlimited number of Ukrainians, through an extended family scheme and of course the humanitarian route, for those fleeing the illegal and barbarous acts of Putin and his cronies. Work is under way across Government with charities and local authorities to ensure that people coming from Ukraine are properly supported, so that they can rebuild their lives. I know my Department is ready for this challenge because we have successfully found a school place for every Afghan child who has come here.

BTECs are a vital lifeline for hundreds of thousands of students, while A-levels and T-levels are not suitable for many because they are not able to achieve level 4. Why are the Government hellbent on cutting back on student choice, and how does that fit in with the Government’s levelling-up agenda and the aspiration for everyone?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady is attacking T-levels, because they were the noble Lord Sainsbury’s idea in the first place. The important thing to remember is that this Government are committed to the ladder of opportunity for everyone, with much better choices and routes for people. This is not about getting rid of BTECs. High quality BTECs will continue, but where there is overlap, we are right to look at that.

T2. Way back in 2020, my Truro and Falmouth constituency successfully secured a new secondary school as part of the Government’s free school programme. That much-needed secondary school will be based at Perranporth on the north coast, and it will make a huge difference to families in Perranporth, Goonhavern, Newquay and Truro. I am in regular contact with the Department and local stakeholders, and I believe we are close to getting a site for the school. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s commitment to supporting and delivering this new secondary school in my constituency, as soon as possible? (906024)

The Government remain committed to delivering the free school programme, and appreciate the importance of a new secondary school in the Perranporth area. We are continuing to work with the trust and local authority, to secure the site and deliver new school places for Cornwall.

The hon. Lady will recall that the national tutoring programme had two pillars—academic mentors and tuition partners—and that programme is run by Randstad. By the way, last week I announced that we have hit 1 million blocks of tutoring, which I hope she welcomes. Schools tell us that those pillars are important, but also that they wanted a school-led route. That is what we did, and more than half a million tutoring blocks have been delivered that way. We must look at the tutoring programme and make those opportunities available for every child, especially those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I think families and school staff will find the Secretary of State’s response staggering in its complacency, given the failures that we are seeing as part of that programme. Almost two years after schools were closed to most children, and given the immense disruption to their education that they face, it should have been a national mission to support all our children to recover the learning and experiences they have lost in that time. Our children’s future, and our country’s future, depend on getting it right now. When will the Secretary of State finally get a grip?

I notice that the hon. Lady did not recognise, or at least celebrate, the 1 million tutoring blocks that have been delivered, the majority of which have been delivered by brilliant teachers in our brilliant schools, because people wanted a school-led route to deliver that. That is the right thing to do. We are at 1 million blocks, we will hit 2 million this year, and we will go beyond that and hit 6 million in total—then I hope the hon. Lady will celebrate that. It is right for every child to get that opportunity, which was available only to the fortunate ones before.

T4. I welcome Kirklees being an education investment area, and Greenhead College, which I visited on Friday, and Huddersfield New College are outstanding providers of sixth-form education to local students. Does the Secretary of State agree that those existing colleges are best placed to support disadvantaged students in my area into universities? (906027)

My hon. Friend has been a champion for those who do not have the privileges that others have, and of spreading that opportunity equally. It is vital that universities work in partnership with colleges and local schools, to raise standards so that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have more options and can choose the path that is right for them. That is this Government’s absolute priority.

T3. What plans does the Minister have to help enable universities to diversify their international student cohorts, so that they are not reliant on funding from countries such as China? (906026)

We recently updated our international education strategy, and we are proud to be home to so many international students who enrich our culture in our universities and local towns. We have beaten our target many years ahead, which is testament to how dedicated we are to continue to grow our international pool of students.

T5. Government Front Benchers need not bother visiting Ashfield—I have got two new school rebuilds coming, so they can go somewhere else—but they will be aware of the problems that I have had with Kirkby College, which is a failing school. It is going to be rebuilt, which is fantastic news, but will the Minister please use all his levers to ensure that that happens as quickly as possible? (906028)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his non-invitation. Kirkby College was confirmed in the school rebuilding programme in July 2021, and the project will make a huge difference to the community. I am happy to commit to delivering it as quickly as possible. We are working closely with the incoming trust to scope the project before securing a construction partner, and we aim for construction to start in 2023.

T6. Parts of the building at Lydiate Primary School are unsafe, the basement floods and the damp conditions are a health hazard. The latest survey shows a significant recent deterioration in conditions, yet the Department for Education says that it will use an out-of-date survey to assess the funding bid made to it. Will the Minister at least promise the children at Lydiate Primary School that the Department will use the latest survey data and information in deciding whether to fund the new building that they need? (906029)

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. We have consulted on the approach to be taken to assessing such schemes. As we discussed earlier, a change in condition is one factor that the Department can take into consideration in such cases, so I ask him please to write to us with more of the detail.

T9. Does my hon. Friend agree that essay mills have the potential to cause severe damage to academic integrity? What steps are being taken to tackle them? (906032)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: essay mills denigrate the excellent work that the vast majority of students do by allowing a tiny minority to cheat. That is why, in our Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, which will soon receive Royal Assent, we are outlawing them, and we will punish everyone involved in them.

T7. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the girls who took part in the FA’s “let girls play” biggest ever football session last week? Will he update the House on the steps that his Department is taking to ensure that girls have equal access to football in schools, and on the work that it is undertaking to ensure that PE is not squeezed out of the curriculum due to the academic over-testing of children? (906030)

I will certainly join the hon. Lady in those congratulations. Only last week I was with girls playing basketball. It is so important that we encourage girls in particular to take part in competitive sport. We know that there is a massive drop-off from primary to secondary. We are investing significant extra money through the pupil premium as well as £30 million of funding to open up school places after hours. I would be happy to meet her, because I know that she shares my passion in this area. Health and nutrition are really important, and we must get more people playing sport.

Some of the most rapid progress in the world is being made by schools in all countries that use information technology and artificial intelligence to support classroom tuition. Is the Department investigating how we could use that?

I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate in this area. It is not about replacing great teachers; it is about enabling teachers to do their job in a much more efficient way. We are certainly looking at that; I will say more in the schools White Paper.

T8. Next week, staff at Glasgow University will be among 50,000 across the UK striking in protest at the 35% cut to their guaranteed pensions. It is in the interests of both students and staff that a negotiated settlement can be reached as soon as possible. What discussion are Ministers having with university employers to encourage them to engage in meaningful dialogue with staff and trade unions? (906031)

I and the rest of the Government continue to encourage a meaningful dialogue, because, at the end of the day, those missing out are students, who have suffered unbelievably during the pandemic and faced challenges. The last thing they need is strikes and further disruption to their face-to-face education.

Equipping young people with the skills of the future is vital not only for green jobs, as we have heard, but for other emerging technologies. However, many such jobs will be underpinned by an understanding and appreciation of engineering. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider introducing a new design, technology and engineering course as one of the science options?

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further. I recognise the enormous importance of engineering—and, of course, essential to that is the numeracy skills that underpin it. That is one reason why we are so prioritising numeracy.

Russell Scott Primary School in Denton has been dubbed by the national media as:

“Britain’s worst built school where pupils paddle in sewage and get sick from toxic fumes.”

I raised this issue previously and Baroness Barran has now suggested a bid to the Department for Education for funding. Tameside Council is in the process of doing that, but it really should not be subject to a competitive process. I hope the bid will be looked on favourably by Ministers. It is crucial, it is levelling up, it is offering the best educational opportunities in safe buildings, is it not?

I knew the hon. Gentleman would persist and ensure he got his point on the record. I recognise that he has consistently raised this school and I welcome the fact that a bid will be coming in. Of course that has to be assessed, but he makes the case very strongly.

In Stroud and Gloucestershire, we have high numbers of home-schooled children. A lot of care is taken to look after their welfare and educate them to a high standard, and there is a really good relationship with Gloucestershire County Council. While many understand the drive for effective wellbeing and safeguarding, they are worried about the new compulsory registration scheme. Will the Minister meet me and my Stroud community, so we can learn more about the plans?

We very much support the right of parents to educate their children at home and we note that it can be driven by many different reasons. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we intend to legislate to ensure we have a “children not in school” register. That is something no parent who is doing the right thing should be concerned about, and, of course, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend and her constituents.

Figures provided to me recently by the Department for Education showed that on average a staggering 27% of children were not at the expected reading age when leaving primary school. That figure was pre-pandemic, so it will undoubtedly be worse now, especially in disadvantaged areas. What work is the Department doing to review primary school reading standards and will the Minister commit to the full £15 billion catch-up funding recommended by Sir Kevan Collins?

The hon. Lady is correct in what she says. Some 65% of pupils leave primary school with the appropriate level of reading, writing and maths, but that still leaves one third who do not. The Government’s ambition in the levelling-up White Paper is that 90% of primary school students should achieve the prerequisite level in reading, writing and maths. The £4.9 billion I am putting into recovery is beginning to really make a difference, especially the National Tutoring Programme, which has just hit 1 million courses.

A school in Darlington is concerned about its energy contract with Gazprom. It wants to do the right thing and step away from contracts with connections to the Russian state. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the situation, which may affect many other schools across the country?

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue. He will know that Gazprom is no longer on the roster of suppliers to the Government and the Department, but I am very happy to meet him about this particular case.

The Secretary of State spoke about the importance of a ladder of opportunity for our children. Can we also have a ladder of opportunity for black children? Many ethnic minority children do well in our school system, but for other groups, particularly black boys, the statistics show that, year on year, they underachieve academically and have disproportionately high levels of exclusion. What is the Secretary of State going to do about that group of children?

I am grateful for the right hon. Lady’s question. The really important thing is to make sure we level up across the board. I was at Hammersmith Academy, which has 60% pupil premium and is a really ethnically mixed school, where every child is supported and stretched to be able to deliver the best they can do. That is the right thing to do and that is what we will do with the schools White Paper, which will be published imminently.

The covid inquiry terms of reference have just a tiny mention of education, suggesting that it looks at “restrictions on attendance”. That is like calling a mortuary a negative patient output. Will my right hon. Friend write to the chair of the covid inquiry and make sure that education and children are properly reflected, looking at the mental health problems and lost educational attainment of children during lockdown?

The Chair of the Education Committee raises a number of important points, especially on mental health. This is not lost on this Secretary of State. The terms of reference are extremely broad, covering preparedness, the public health response and the response in the health and care sector, as well as the economic response. The restrictions on attendance at places of education are set out in the terms of reference as well. Moreover, there are other broad areas of potential relevance for education.

I have constituents whose teacher-assessed grades during the pandemic were markedly different from the grades predicted, often by the same teacher just a couple of months previously. When I complain to the school, it says I should go to Ofqual, but when I go to Ofqual, it says I should go to the school. Can we please have a clear appeal mechanism to sort out these long-running problems?

I would be happy to take up the issues the hon. Member raises with Ofqual, which I am due to meet later this week. It is important to reiterate that some of the challenges we have seen with TAGs are among the many reasons we think it is right that exams should go ahead. We need to move back to a proper, independently assessed system. I want to make sure that schools and colleges that have been asked to collect evidence of their students’ performance, covering the breadth of content usually seen in exams and assessments, recognise that, once they have that evidence, they are not obliged to collect any more. It is important that we have the fallback of TAGs, of course, but we do not necessarily want schools to be going out of their way to do extra work in this space.

Stoke-on-Trent was delighted to become an education investment area and is seeking a new 16-to-19 specialist school, but I am still waiting for wave 15 of the free school programme to be announced so that I can bid for the long overdue free school in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. We need to improve academic outcomes and destinations. When is that coming?

My hon. Friend always champions his area passionately and I recognise the strong bid he has put in. Of course the education investment areas provide that opportunity to have extra free school provision.

Has the Secretary of State seen the latest report from the autism commission that I co-chair, which focuses on not only autism, but the impact on the individual throughout their life and their family? Does he realise that the failure to get a statement and to get an assessment for years and years is causing so much unhappiness in those families?

I certainly recognise some of the challenges that the hon. Gentleman references. The special educational needs review will be published in the coming days. He may have questions following on from that. I would be happy to meet him to discuss that further.