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Topical Questions

Volume 710: debated on Monday 14 March 2022

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.