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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 May 2022


The Secretary of State was asked—

Low-Performing Areas: Education Funding

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our well wishes to the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), as she is fighting covid and, I am sure, will defeat it.

To help all pupils to achieve their potential, I have increased core schools funding by £4 billion, which is a 7% increase in cash terms per pupil this year, in 2022-23; and I have directed—flexed—£2.6 billion of that funding towards low prior attainment children through the national funding formula.

The additional funding that schools in Blackpool receive through our status as an opportunity area and an education investment area will make a real difference on the ground. However, headteachers often raise with me the problem of digital exclusion when pupils are at home due to a lack of IT equipment, which obviously puts pupils from lower-income families at a comparative disadvantage. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that pupils from low-income backgrounds do not lose out due to digital exclusion?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I am working to ensure that every school has access to high-speed broadband connectivity by 2025. Priority schools in education improvement areas will be able to access our £150 million programme to upgrade their internal network infrastructure. During the pandemic, as my hon. Friend highlighted from his teachers’ point of view, many children did not have access to technology for learning at home, so we provided devices, wi-fi and data to disadvantaged students to support digital inclusion at home.

I am supporting my Bishop’s Stortford constituents’ “Turn on the Subtitles” campaign to improve children’s literacy across the board, but particularly in low-performing areas. Raj Chande, the director of Nesta’s “A Fairer Start” mission, said that the campaign’s evidence is compelling, and it has Nesta’s seal of approval—an important endorsement. Therefore, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to invest in the campaign by reviewing its mass of evidence, and will he encourage parents and children to turn on the subtitles?

I have set out in the White Paper that we share the commitment to raising literacy standards, as I am sure the whole House does, and we want to ensure that all children can read fluently and with that understanding. I thank Henry Warren and Oli Barrett MBE for their commitment to improving literacy levels, and they have championed that campaign. It is a choice for parents and guardians whether their child watches television and whether they do so with the subtitles on, but it certainly makes a difference in the Zahawi household.

Does the Secretary of State agree that as well as funding, data and transparency matter so that we can monitor things, act quickly and see that the plans that we have announced are working to improve schools right across Eastleigh?

I never tire of saying that data and transparency are our greatest allies in improving educational outcomes. We are absolutely focused on delivering against the ambitious targets that we have set for skills, schools and families, and on holding ourselves in the Department against them. Sharing our plans and performance data is a key lever to drive rapid improvement through the complex system that we oversee in education. I have committed to publishing a delivery plan setting out what we will achieve and a performance dashboard showing progress, and I want teachers and school leaders to do the same on behaviour, absenteeism and, of course, standards.

Does the Minister agree that the future of children’s education in the now city of Doncaster has never been brighter due to the excellent steps taken by this Government, the fantastic schools in Don Valley and the roll-out of my role models project on the ground, which shows young people all the career opportunities? With that in mind, will the Minister agree to come to Don Valley and see for himself the good work that is being done?

My hon. Friend is certainly a role model in how he has celebrated Doncaster becoming a city. I am delighted that the role models project is connecting schools in Don Valley to local professionals; it is inspiring and informative for young people to hear about the career journeys of role models and to learn about all the excellent career opportunities available to them in Doncaster. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend and seeing the project for myself.

Does the Secretary of State agree that any increases in funding for schools should be spent on teaching and learning, not on propping up failing energy companies? In an average primary school, £30,000 more—the cost of a teacher—is being spent on energy. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it? Will he include nurseries and early years settings in his assessment?

The 7% increase on last year, in cash terms, that we secured at the spending review for this year includes significant additional funding that allows us headroom, but the hon. Lady is right to highlight the point. Energy represents about 1.4% to 1.5% of schools’ budgets, but because of the energy spike, schools that are out of contract have seen that proportion increase to 7%, 8% or 9%. We are keeping a close eye on the matter. The one message that I would like the hon. Lady and every other hon. Member to take away to their schools is to get in touch with us if they are close to coming out of contract, because we can really help.

May I take the chance to congratulate Stockport children’s services on their “good” Ofsted rating?

I am really concerned at the lack of progress in educational attainment, particularly at secondary level, in schools in parts of my constituency across Stockport and Tameside. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all parents have the choice of schools with good performance and that children have the opportunities that a good education can bring?

I know that the hon. Gentleman and I share the same passion in what we want for every child. I do not believe that children in Stockport are less talented than children in South Kensington; they have just not had the same opportunity of a great teacher in every classroom in every school. I am determined to deliver that through the White Paper.

I join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the inspection result for Stockport children’s services; they have done a phenomenal job. I hope that he will be in the Chamber for the statement by the Children and Families Minister—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—about Josh MacAlister’s very important review, which has been published today.

You will understand, Mr Speaker, how disturbed I was to learn that Highland Council schools have been ranked as the worst in the whole of Scotland for numeracy and literacy among P1, P4 and P7 pupils. These children are our future. We used to be proud of Scottish education. Will the Government share their best practice with the Scottish Government so that this scandal is sorted out?

That is concerning, I have to say, because although education is devolved, we care about the whole United Kingdom. I am very happy to share our work through the education White Paper and the education Bill, and what we are doing on skills, with T-levels and the lifelong learning entitlement. I worry that Scottish children are being let down. It feels as if Scotland is in freefall down the league tables of the programme for international student assessment.

I am more interested in the Government’s record on academic inequality than in their rhetoric. The annual review of education by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals that since 2010, the most deprived secondary schools have suffered a 14% cut in spending, while for the most affluent schools the figure is just 9%. The new national funding formula makes the disparity worse. The Government’s 10 years of further education cuts also fell harder on poorer students. We all know that the Government stand against aspiration for deprived children and are increasing inequality, as those figures show. Why do they not at least have the courage to admit it?

The hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points, but they are completely misguided. He speaks with great passion, but without looking at the evidence before us. The past 12 years demonstrate that schools have been on an improvement journey. When we came into office, only two thirds of schools could achieve a good or outstanding rating; the figure is now 86%. My predecessors’ work on skills has taken investment in the skills agenda up to £3.8 billion. When we talk to teachers and school leaders around the country, they know that the White Paper will deliver great outcomes for every child. We have set our ambitions high for children all over the country; we know how to get there, and we will deliver.

I was sorry to hear about the Minister for Higher and Further Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), and I wish her a speedy recovery.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will join me in wishing all the young people throughout the United Kingdom who are currently sitting their national exams the best of success.

The Secretary of State has praised private schools, including Eton, for building free schools in places such as Oldham, which, according to him, need that investment in education. Can he confirm that it is now Government policy to rely on private school investment where Government funds have been lacking?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we should send our congratulations to the brilliant teachers who have delivered the 650,000 pupils who have taken their key stage 2 standard assessment tests this month. Students began taking their A-levels and GCSEs last Monday, and 3 million individual test scripts have been returned for marking. That is a great achievement after two years of being stuck with covid.

The hon. Lady asked about funding. This Government will be putting £56.5 billion into our school system. We have a plan, which is well evidenced, for delivering a great school with a great teacher for every classroom in the country. Scotland has no plan, and is in freefall in the international league tables.

SEND Review: Further Education

2. What steps he is taking through his Department’s SEND review to support SEND students in further education. (900161)

We are consulting on a wide range of proposals in our SEND and alternative provision Green Paper to benefit young people with special educational needs and disabilities in further education. They include new national SEND standards delivered through new local SEND partnerships and local inclusion plans. We will also set out clear guidance for timely, effective, high-quality transition into further education, higher education, employment or adult social care for young people with SEND.

The Minister visited Suffolk New College recently with me. I went back shortly afterwards to see the inclusion team there. I appreciate that work on the SEND Green Paper is ongoing and has a clear focus on primary and secondary schools, but will the Minister assure me that there will also be a big focus on 16 to 18 FE? The work that Suffolk New College does in preparing these individuals for the world of work is crucial. Sam, who I saw and who had very little confidence, is now leading a whole team at the Chefs’ Whites restaurant there, and will be manning restaurants all over Ipswich. Will the Minister ensure that, when it comes to funding and Ofsted inspections, inclusion should be a requirement for every FE college?

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Suffolk New College, and seeing some of the excellent work that it is doing in respect of a range of issues. I saw just how much the young people in that area are benefiting from their hard work. As my hon. Friend knows, we are engaging widely with a huge number of stakeholders to ensure that we get our consultation right, and I hope very much that Suffolk New College will bring its expertise to that process.

Children with vision impairment require high-quality specialist support to access education and learn skills. I wrote to the Minister outlining concerns about the SEND review’s failure to include anything about the roles and responsibilities of local authority vision impairment specialist education services. According to research conducted by the Royal National Institute of Blind People, more than 60% of local authorities in England have reported a decrease or freeze in full-time specialist VI teaching support. We cannot have a two-tier system. Will the Minister agree to meet me to ensure that proposed local inclusion plans include protected high needs funding for local authorities to deliver specialist VI education services?

I know that the hon. Lady has a great deal of expertise in this regard. We are very keen to ensure, through the SEND review, that children and young people have the right support in the right place at the right time. I strongly encourage the hon. Lady to take part in that consultation, and the Minister responsible has agreed to meet her.

The announcement in the levelling up White Paper that Kirklees has been allocated £100 million of extra funds as an education investment area is welcome news for Dewsbury. Will the Minister explain what that extra funding will mean for further education students and children with special educational needs and disabilities?

It is great to hear how our education investment areas are starting to change the game in areas of great need across the country, including my hon. Friend’s. This is aimed at building a stronger schools system that works to improve outcomes for all pupils, including those with SEND. Our investment will mean improved teacher retention, more pupils in stronger trusts that can offer SEND support effectively, and better connectivity so that schools can use new technology to support learning needs.

Will the Government expressly include acquired brain injury in the SEND review? A lot of youngsters who are affected by it, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, who are four times more likely to have a major brain injury in their teenage years. Everybody gathers round for a few days after the event, but a year later they can be suffering from neurocognitive stall, have terrible fatigue and find it really difficult to get back into the educational system because the support is not there.

The hon. Gentleman has been a powerful champion in this House for that cause, and I am pleased to say that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester—the city of Colchester—(Will Quince) will meet him to discuss this.

Political Impartiality in Schools

The law is clear that schools must remain politically impartial. I know that colleagues on all sides of the House relish going into schools for hustings during elections. Children need to learn about the yellow team, the blue team, the red team and the green team, but I recognise that some issues can be challenging to deal with, so my Department has recently published clear, comprehensive guidance to help teachers tackle sensitive issues in the classroom in a politically impartial way.

In April this year, members of the National Education Union claimed that it was somehow impossible to teach history in a balanced manner. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that some children are at risk of being indoctrinated by political activists masquerading as teachers? Will he bring forward powers in the new Schools Bill to strike off those who repeatedly fail to comply with impartiality guidelines?

Our knowledge-rich history curriculum requires teaching methods of historical inquiry. We should be teaching children how to think, not what to think, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims and discerning how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed. Our guidance supports this, and schools already have powers to take disciplinary action where teachers repeatedly breach their legal duties.

Condition Improvement Fund

4. What recent steps his Department has taken to ensure that condition improvement fund allocations reflect the needs of schools and pupils. (900163)

The condition improvement fund addresses significant condition issues in eligible academies, voluntary-aided schools and sixth form colleges. Applications are carefully assessed on condition need, the quality of the project plan and value for money in order to prioritise the most urgent works. We announced the funding of more than 1,400 projects in the last round, including 10 in County Durham.

Leadgate Primary School and Consett Junior School in my constituency hit some of the core criteria outlined in the plan, but at the top of County Durham’s list is Villa Real special school, which does not meet the normal criteria, given that it is less than 25 years old. However, there is a real need for expanded special needs provision in County Durham, and that school has serious structural issues. Can the Minister reassure me that that school will be looked at properly, even though it does not fit the traditional criteria?

I recognise that my hon. Friend is a great champion of his schools. I believe that this is a local authority-maintained school. Local authorities receive condition allocations to improve their school buildings. Instead of the school applying to the condition improvement fund, Durham County Council will receive £6.6 million for the 2022-23 year. We have also announced £1.4 billion of investment for the financial years 2022-23 and 2023-24 to improve existing high needs provision, of which Durham will receive £11.2 million.

The reality is that the schools estate is crumbling after 12 years of Tory negligence. In 2019, the Government’s own survey revealed that one in six schools required urgent repairs, and the Minister’s own Department is warning that some school sites present a risk to life. Millions of children are learning in buildings that are not fit for purpose, so can he tell us whether he has had any success in securing funding from the Chancellor and whether he is confident that every school building in England is safe for the children who learn in it?

The safety of pupils and staff is paramount. We have one of the largest condition data collection programmes in Europe, which helps us to assess and manage risk across the estate. Through our programmes, we prioritise buildings where there is a risk to health and safety. We have invested more than £13 billion since 2015 in improving the condition of school buildings and facilities, which includes £1.8 billion committed this year. In addition, our new school rebuilding programme will transform the learning environment at 500 schools over the next decade and will prioritise evidence of severe need and safety issues.

Alternative Student Finance: Muslim Students

5. What progress his Department has made on developing an alternative student finance product for Muslim students. (900164)

We remain committed to delivering alternative student finance, and we are currently considering if and how it can be delivered as part of the lifelong loan entitlement.

It is estimated that 4,000 Muslim students a year do not go into higher education because there is no finance available that is compatible with their faith. David Cameron promised to fix this nine years ago. A good deal of work was done, but it seems to have run into the sand in the past few years. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for reaffirming the Government’s commitment to delivering on David Cameron’s promise, but can he give us an indication of how much longer Muslim students will have to wait?

We will provide a further update on alternative student finance as part of our response to the LLE consultation, which closed earlier this month.

Student Loan Interest Payments

Monthly student loan repayments are based on income, not interest rates, meaning that no one will see their monthly repayment increase due to interest rates. From September, we have reformed the student loan system so that new borrowers will not repay more in real terms than they originally borrowed—that is fair.

The level of student loan interest rates is of great importance to students, past and present, in my constituency, half of which is in the new city of Wrexham. Will my right hon. Friend provide further detail on how we can apply a sustainable downward pressure to student loan interest rates in future?

That is an important question, and I fully recognise the concerns of students and their parents about increasing interest rates. I am looking actively at how we can mitigate that, and we will be setting it out shortly. I emphasise again that no one’s monthly repayment will increase due to higher interest rates, which is an important point to make when people’s budgets are tight.

Violence Against Women on University Campuses

Violence against women is unacceptable, and we must pursue a zero-tolerance culture. I have written to the Office for Students to make clear my view that it should make tackling sexual misconduct a binding condition of universities’ registration. I have also launched a pledge that commits universities to not using non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of sexual harassment. Fifty-three providers have so far made the pledge, and we expect many more to follow.

We are far from zero tolerance at the moment. As a parent of two daughters who have attended or are attending two different universities, I have seen that universities are not safe spaces. Research shows that between two thirds and three quarters of female students, and 70% of female university and college staff, have experienced sexual violence.

The president of the University of Roehampton’s students union has been in regular contact with me about incidents there and about how the local police’s hands are tied because sexual harassment is not a crime, so they cannot take action. There are many factors. Will the Secretary of State go further and commission a review of sexual violence on campuses across our country and take more action to make our campuses safe?

Universities UK published a report a couple of years ago assessing the sector’s progress on tackling gender-based violence, harassment and hate crime. It showed some progress had been made, but only 72% of responding institutions had developed or improved the recording of data on harassment. I need them to go much further, and we will keep everything on the table. I am determined that we get to where the hon. Lady and I both want to get. I am the father of a nine-year-old girl who will one day go to college or, I hope, take a degree apprenticeship. A zero-tolerance culture must be delivered.

Freedom of Speech in Education

The Government maintain our commitment to the protection of free speech and academic freedom in universities with the reintroduction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill following the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.

As the Secretary of State says, it is right and just that we are in the vanguard of the fight for free speech. As the Bill that will ensure that progresses through the House, the backdrop against which we debate it is disturbing, with universities continuing to use the Equality Act 2010 to elevate the fear of disturbance or distress above the ability of free speech to inspire, enthral and move the academic agenda forward. The case of Dr Sarkar at the University of Oxford is a recent sad example, but it is by no means exceptional. Will the Secretary of State, before the Bill reaches the statute book, conduct a review of free speech policies at universities, and, if necessary, issue fresh guidance to ensure that academics and students in those universities can speak freely? [Interruption.]

I shall attempt to be pithy, Mr Speaker.

The Government and I are clear that issues such as antisemitism are abhorrent, but universities and students’ unions must balance their legal duties, including freedom of speech and tackling harassment. The Bill will place duties directly on students’ unions to secure freedom of speech for staff, students and visiting speakers. No one should fear expressing lawful views.

Early Years Services and Childcare

We are committed to improving the cost, choice and availability of childcare and early education. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements, and up to £180 million on addressing the impact of the pandemic on children’s early development.

Parents of children attending the YMCA community nursery in Bedford are facing unaffordable sevenfold price increases. Rising business costs, huge losses and staff shortages are the consequences of the Government’s funding model, which goes nowhere near funding the costs for nurseries or parents. Does the Minister agree that levelling up means nothing if children cannot access the best start to their education and their parents cannot work because they cannot afford nursery costs?

That is exactly why we spend more than £5 billion a year on childcare and early years, including: the offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds; the offer of 15 and 30 hours for three and four-year-olds, which is worth about £6,000 per child to parents; the universal credit offer, which is worth up to 85% of childcare costs; the tax-free childcare; and the holiday activities and food programme. Of course we take this issue incredibly seriously.

For families with young children, soaring childcare costs are a huge pressure on the cost of living. A quarter of households earning between £20,000 and £30,000 a year are paying more than £100 a week for childcare. The Government’s only response so far has been a proposed cut to staff to child ratios in early years settings. Parents have not asked for that, and 98% of providers believe that it will do nothing to cut costs for parents and could reduce the quality of care. Will the Minister set out why he believes that asking parents to pay more for less is a remotely adequate response to the rising cost of living?

Over the summer, we will consult on moving to the Scottish staff to child ratios for two-year-olds—from a ratio of one to four compared with one to five. I want all parents and carers to receive value for money, and more families to benefit from affordable, flexible and quality childcare. Such changes would help settings to deliver that by handing them more autonomy and flexibility. However—this is important—my priority continues to be to provide safe and high-quality early years provision for our very youngest children; as I have said before, I will not compromise on those things.

More than half of families with two-year-olds do not access any formal early years education or childcare at all, while a shocking 65% of eligible two-year-olds are not receiving the full free entitlement. Early years education makes a huge difference to children’s development and can have a lifelong impact by mitigating disadvantage. What is the Minister doing to increase the pitifully low uptake of free places for two-year-olds?

The hon lady is absolutely right that take-up of the two-year-old disadvantage offer is much lower than we want it to be. In truth, take-up of the universal credit childcare offer is lower than we want it to be and take-up of the tax-free childcare offer is lower than we want it to be. Throughout the House, we all have a duty to promote those offers more widely, and I certainly understand that the House will.

The truth is that even with the billions of pounds that have been spent on childcare, the issue has proved to be a hot mess for Governments of all colours for a number of years. I applaud the Department for trying to grapple with this tricky issue. Will my hon. Friend confirm that he is looking carefully—it is right that he does so—at regulations across the whole of the childcare piece that drive up costs for families, and that he is talking to parents and the childcare sector about that? Will he also confirm that he is looking to support childminders in respect of future changes to regulations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are working jointly with other Departments to consider options for how to improve the system within the parameters of the 2021 spending review. As I have said, as well as the quality of provision, health and safety will continue to be of paramount importance, and any significant changes to regulations would require consultation. My hon. Friend is right that we need more childminders to enter the market; they are often the most flexible and affordable type of provision and I am looking into the regulatory changes we can make to encourage more of them to enter the profession.

Mental Wellbeing of Pupils

12. What steps he is taking to help primary and secondary schools support pupils’ mental wellbeing. (900171)

This month, we announced £10 million to extend senior mental health lead training to more schools. Such training will be available to two thirds of schools and colleges by 2023 and to all by 2025. It will support our schools White Paper actions on the promotion of a school week and targeting of support to improve mental wellbeing.

Since being elected, I have been lucky to visit many schools throughout my constituency. I have been told consistently, both by teachers and by pupils, that students of all ages are struggling to cope with poor mental health and that the situation has worsened considerably since the pandemic. That comes against the backdrop of a survey, reported on recently in The Guardian, that found that 43% of GPs have told parents to seek private care for children with poor mental health. Will the Minister adopt the recommendations of my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) and commit not only to support young people’s mental health but to report on it annually to Parliament?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue, which is one of the big challenges of our time. We know that pressures on young people in relation to mental wellbeing are growing, which is why on 12 May I announced an additional £7 million to extend senior mental health lead training to even more schools and colleges. That will help our ambition to reach two thirds of eligible settings by 2023 and brings the total amount of funding for 2022-23 to £10 million. In addition, we will roll out mental health support teams to 35% of all schools by next year. In truth, though, we do need to go further. I regularly speak to my counterpart at the Department of Health and Social Care to see what more we can do in this policy area.

One of the best ways to demonstrate, both to teachers and to young people, that we value and support them is to make sure that they have a decent school to go to in the first place. I hope the Minister will therefore join me in congratulating Gillian Middlemas and the staff and pupils of Whitworth Community High School, which has just been topped out as part of the Government’s school building programme. I hope he will also take the time to visit my constituency to see the work—

I would be happy to visit my right hon. Friend’s constituency. The schools that are doing best on mental health and mental wellbeing are the ones that take a whole-school approach, as that school no doubt is.

A set of schools that are usually forgotten are the pupil referral units that take on pupils with extensive special educational needs and disabilities. Tackling such a challenging set of needs requires a multidisciplinary approach, but PRUs throughout the country do not have set criteria for how they should teach students or support children back into mainstream schools, and nor do they have sustained funding. Will the Minister look at the fantastic model for multidisciplinary and multi-agency education that is delivered at Orchardside School—the Department is aware of its work—in my constituency? Perhaps he can come to see the work being done there and how sustained investment can make a difference.

I would be very happy to do so. We need a step change in the way that we approach alternative provision. That is why alternative provision is a key part of the special educational needs and disability and alternative provision review. We do need a step change. I would be very happy to come to see the hon. Lady’s constituency. We are investing an initial £2.6 billion in capital for SEND and alternative provision places, which I know will be game changing.

On Friday past, I presented Arthur Redmond at High Lawn Primary School with the Bolton North East community champion award for litter picking. Does the Minister agree that a national campaign for primary and secondary schools across the country to get involved in litter picking would help boost kids’ mental wellbeing?

That was an interesting link from my hon. Friend. None the less, he does have a point that a whole-school approach to mental wellbeing is about doing all sorts of extra-curricular activities. One of the best ways, of course, is getting children and young people outside. Would I encourage a campaign to tackle littering? Of course, I would.

I am both eager and angry this morning, which is why I wanted to get in my question to the ministerial team as early as possible. Are Ministers aware of the great scandal that children’s needs are not being identified early enough to change their life trajectory? Up and down the country, parents are waiting months, even years, to get any sort of assessment or statement. Why do the Government not wake up to that and do something about it?

As I have said, I regularly meet my counterpart at the Department of Health and Social Care. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that at the heart of the SEND and alternative provision review is not just inclusivity, but early identification.

Dyslexia and other Neurodivergent Conditions

14. What steps his Department is taking to help improve (a) early identification of, (b) teacher training in and (c) support for pupils with dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions in primary schools. (900173)

Our ambition, which I know my right hon. Friend shares, is that we will level up opportunities for all children and young people. That is why I have published the Schools White Paper and the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper, which sets out our plans to better identify children at risk of falling behind and then provide them with the support they need. That includes those with neurodivergent conditions

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and for the work that he has done. The White Paper and the SEND review have gone down very well, but they are about the direction of travel; we need to get to the destination. Will he confirm the need for a universal approach to screening for neurodiverse conditions and will he also congratulate those who are doing good work already such as those at Laureate Community Academy in Exning in Newmarket, which I visited earlier this month?

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), will be hosting a roundtable meeting this summer to discuss the different approaches being taken around the country, where I hope we will learn from some of those people—as my right hon. Friend knows, I will always be the evidence-led Secretary of State. Early intervention is important, and the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper will deliver that. Moreover, the parent pledge in the Schools White Paper is a lever for teachers to identify those children with dyslexia and dyspraxia and to put that help in place.

Maths and English: Support for Pupils

The Schools White Paper includes a parent pledge to identify children who have fallen behind in English or maths and provide them with support. To help schools support pupils who have fallen behind we have invested £1 billion in 6 million tutoring packages by 2024, re-endowed the Education Endowment Foundation, set aside £55 million for our accelerator fund and introduced a menu of targeted support methods. We are continuing to invest in networks of maths and English hubs to support schools. I was privileged to visit a maths hub in St Marylebone’s C of E School on National Numeracy Day.

I very much welcome Stoke-on-Trent being announced as a prioritised education investment area. Locally, partners have been working hard to drive up standards through an education challenge board. Does my hon. Friend agree that we should welcome that work and that this is the way that we will drive up standards in both English and maths?

I, too, am very pleased that Stoke-on-Trent is a priority education investment area. With such proud and outspoken Members of Parliament, the area is always well-championed in this House. Our approach will look to build on the strong work to date in all those areas, including existing partnerships such as the education challenge board. We will be considering the best ways to do that and ensure that a diverse range of local partners inform our decision making in every priority investment area.

Does my hon. Friend share my view about the importance of children knowing their multiplication tables by heart? Does he therefore welcome the fact that the multiplication tables check for nine-year-olds that takes place next month will, for the first time, show how well-prepared children are for the future demands of the maths curriculum?

Yes, absolutely. I thank my right hon. Friend for his extensive work, when he was Minister of State, to improve maths education, not least through introduction of the multiplication tables check. I assure him that we intend to continue to build on those important reforms. The first statutory administration of the MTC will be in June this year. The digital assessment of year 4 pupils will determine whether pupils can fluently recall their times tables, which is essential for future success in mathematics. Where the check identifies pupils who need extra support, schools will provide that.

Severely Absent Pupils

16. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s steps to help return severely absent pupils to school. (900175)

My schools White Paper and new attendance guidance set out how we expect schools and local authorities to support severely absent pupils so that they can attend regularly. We also recently launched a live data trial for schools, trusts and local authorities, enabling them to target support at pupils who need it most.

My right hon. Friend rightly says that he is driven by the data, and I thank him for the work he is doing to try to get these children back to school. The Centre for Social Justice suggests that 13,000 children in critical exam years were severely absent in the autumn term 2020, and FFT Education Datalab suggests that 5% of pupils were severely absent from September to May this year. What data are the Government collecting on children in exam years who have been severely absent, and what is being done to bring them back to school and to ensure that they get targeted tuition through the catch-up programme?

I am delighted to confirm that, as my right hon. Friend knows, we are bringing forward legislative measures to establish a local authority registration system, but that is for the future. Those GCSE, AS-level and A-level students sitting exams this year have been given advance information to help them focus, and to give them the confidence to come in and take exams this year. We are also working to make sure that the alliance of national leaders across education is doing everything it can to deal with persistent absenteeism, and to make sure that all children are in school, which is the best place for them to be.

Topical Questions

The United Kingdom’s education export was estimated at over £25 billion in 2019. I am delighted that 132 Education Ministers from 110 countries around the world are in town today to join us at the Education World Forum this week.

We all want to congratulate all those students sitting exams. Hundreds of thousands have already sat their exams, including 650,000 taking key stage 2 standard assessment tests. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing them very well.

In the platinum jubilee year, 4.5 million primary school children in schools in England and Northern Ireland will receive a hardback book, as will those in schools in Scotland and Wales who opt in. In some homes there are no books, and those children will take home this beautiful book about Her Majesty’s reign and the Commonwealth.

Last week I received an email from a parent on Holbeck Avenue in Bolsover, saying:

“There is no 6th form available at The Bolsover School and so pupils wishing to do A levels have an expensive bus ride in order to get anywhere. For instance it costs around £650 a year if your child is successful to get a place at St Mary’s High School in Chesterfield and the choice of courses at Chesterfield college are quite limited.”

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share my passion for ensuring post-16 education in the Bolsover constituency?

My hon. Friend and I met on 9 May to discuss access to the full range of post-16 education in his constituency. I asked my officials to look into the matters raised at that meeting. I know my hon. Friend is a champion of this issue and has looked at the evidence, and I will write to him very shortly.

The Schools Bill gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers over the operation of our schools. Does that mean that he recognises that the Government’s approach to school improvement over the past 12 years has failed?

Quite the opposite. The hon. Lady clearly does not follow the evidence. If she looked at it, she would see that families of schools in high-performing multi-academy trusts have delivered better outcomes for their students. Whether they are Church of England schools, Catholic schools or grammar schools, they are all joining us on this journey, and I invite her to do the same.

Headteachers are telling us they are having to cut back on staffing, school trips, and even pens and paper. As costs soar and the national insurance rise comes into effect, the Secretary of State is still failing to invest in our children’s recovery. Experts have lined up to tell him the damage his inaction will cause, not just to our children’s future but to Britain’s future success. What will it take to convince him to put our children first?

I do not know whether the hon. Lady was listening when I talked about the 7% cash increase in the budget for schools this year compared with last year—that is £4 billion going to our schools. By 2024 we will be investing £56.5 billion in education. Of course money makes a difference, but if she visits Hammersmith Academy she will meet a great leadership team who are delivering for their students—60% of whom get the pupil premium—because leadership matters. I wish her luck in her leadership campaign.

T4.   Apprenticeships are a terrific opportunity for those with learning difficulties, due to the vocational nature of the training, but we need more such opportunities. Where there is a surplus of funding from the apprenticeship levy allowance, will the Minister consider directing it at incentivising smaller companies to provide apprenticeships, thereby ensuring parity of opportunity for those with learning difficulties, such as those with 22q11 deletion syndrome? (900153)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We certainly want an increased number of learners with disabilities starting apprenticeships. Working with Disability Rights UK, our disabled apprentice network provides valuable insight into attracting disabled people to apprenticeships and retaining them on them. We also offer financial support for employers and providers that take on apprentices with additional needs.

This Government’s oven-ready Brexit deal allows the UK to associate with Horizon Europe, but because of the faffing around over their Northern Ireland protocol, there is still no certainty about this association. When will this Government stop treating research as a Brexit bargaining chip and provide assurance to our researchers that funding and collaboration are safe?

This Government have always been clear about our desire to secure a good relationship with Horizon and the huge benefits that the UK’s world-leading universities can bring the scientific community in that respect. We have made a clear offer to the EU, and it is for the EU to come forward and engage with us.

T6. Burton and South Derbyshire College is a fantastic example of a higher education facility using innovative learning techniques to inspire and train tomorrow’s scientists and engineers. Will the Secretary of State commit to investing more in higher education facilities to ensure that young people get the learning and experience they need to progress into sought-after, well-paid careers? (900155)

I was delighted to visit that excellent college in my hon. Friend’s constituency and to see the fantastic work being done there. She will be pleased to know that we are investing £450 million of capital funding in higher education providers over the next three years, and that £400 million of that will be targeted on strategic priorities such as high-cost science, technology, engineering and maths and degree apprenticeships, for which providers can submit their bids until 27 June.

T2. A few minutes ago, the Minister told the House what the Government are doing about pre-school childcare, but what does he say to families in constituencies like mine, where the financial benefits of going into work are swallowed up by childcare costs, or people do not even access childcare because they cannot afford to? (900151)

As I said, we spend over £5 billion a year on supporting parents with childcare costs. This year alone, we are putting an extra £160 million into the sector. The important thing is to make sure that the existing entitlements are being taken up, and as the hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) rightly pointed out, we need as a House to ensure that our constituents are aware of what they may be entitled to.

T9. The decision to scrap grammar schools was once described as “a real tragedy for this country…they are a very important part of the mix in our educational system…and they should be supported”.I completely agree with the Prime Minister and I am glad that the Secretary of State is also so supportive, saying that he wants to “spread the DNA” of grammar schools across the education system and give them a special status to retain academic selection in the upcoming Schools Bill, but it is not right that children in Teesside and Stoke-on-Trent do not the same opportunities as a child in Kent or Stratford-upon-Avon, so will the Government support my right hon. Friend— (900158)

The Schools Bill will protect grammar schools. However, we have 165 grammar schools, and 90 of them are already playing their part in those families of schools in multi-academy trusts. We have a system with 22,000 schools. I mentioned Gary Kynaston’s brilliant leadership of Hammersmith Academy. My hon. Friend should go and have a look at Michaela and what Katharine Birbalsingh has done there. That is—

Order. Come on, let us be fair. Both of you have lined these comments up—that is great—but it is topical questions; they are meant to be short and sweet. Do not take advantage. It is not like you, Secretary of State; you are too nice a person.

T3. Last week, the Government published a list of BTECs that they intend to scrap, and impact assessments show that 27% of BTEC students are deemed the most disadvantaged. I was one of those students, and a BTEC got me back into education and on to university. T-levels will not appeal to all those students. Assessors are making decisions affecting the lives of thousands of young people, so can the Minister confirm who these assessors actually are? (900152)

We have a range of independent assessors going through the process. The consultation process will last the next few months, and we intend to publish the final list of qualifications to be defunded to make way for our world-class, gold-standard T-levels in September, thereby giving colleges two years to prepare.

I was reminded, on a recent visit to the excellent Warrender Primary School in my constituency, how important schools are to safeguarding. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what plans will be put in place, through the schools White Paper, to ensure that schools continue to play a central part in statutory safeguarding arrangements?

Schools are under a statutory duty to co-operate with the arrangements set out by local safeguarding partners, and we have asked safeguarding partners to review how they work with schools in all their areas. We requested that all local areas review that following the Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges. We will actively look at this issue as part of our response to today’s care review.

T5. Universities right across the UK have been teaming up with our counterparts in Ukraine, not only to try to ensure that institutions still exist when the war is over, but to deliver lectures to students virtually. What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues across Government about supporting this impressive initiative, so that it can continue? (900154)

Supporting Ukraine’s education system is a priority for us all, as is supporting children and young people who come from Ukraine. The Minister for Higher and Further Education has been working closely with the sector, and I have been working across the schools piece to make sure that our education sector is as well placed as it can be to support Ukrainian students.

Farming has a very important role in my constituency, and I am amazed by the amount of technical knowledge that is needed these days. What more can the Department do to introduce an interest in farming in schools?

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that from September next year, the T-level in agriculture will be available. I hope she will be promoting it in South East Cornwall.

T7. In my constituency, there are simply not enough school places for children with special educational needs. What is really needed is a new school to increase capacity. What conversations has the Department held with local authorities to establish in which areas there is the most need for special schools, and where a new school would deliver the most benefit? (900156)

Over the course of the spending review period, we have secured an additional £2.6 billion for special and alternative provision places, with £1.4 billion of that being made available this year. The hon. Lady should speak with her local authority to make sure that provision is covered.

Last Friday was the 36th anniversary of the rebel amendment in the House of Lords proposed by Lady Cox, which banned the indoctrination of schoolchildren with partisan political views. Does the Secretary of State accept that the concept of anti-nuclear education, and of anti-imperialist education, which led to that ban, are to be compared with the concepts of vicious identity politics and of the decolonisation of subjects, which rightly fall foul of the legislation he cited?

My right hon. Friend raises a very powerful point, and he is quite right: children should be taught how to think, not what to think.

T8. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 27% of children in the UK are living in poverty, which equates to eight in a classroom of 30. A classroom with hungry children is not an environment that is conducive to good learning, so what discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor to plan emergency interventions to tackle such shocking levels of child deprivation and inequality across these islands? (900157)

The Government have taken action that is worth more than £22 billion this financial year. We have also put in place immediate support for families who are struggling by doubling the household support fund. We have made changes to the taper rate of universal credit and we have extended, by £200 million a year, the holiday activities and food programme.

Diptford Church of England Primary School in my constituency is operating from the village hall, because its buildings have been damaged. They are temporary buildings, so the money that might be allocated from the Department would be to repair those temporary buildings, which is clearly illogical. Will the Schools Minister meet me to see what we can do to secure money for new buildings for the school?

T10. A recent investigation by Schools Week found that rural schools make up 40% of school closures, which is an increasing proportion. Small community schools are having to fight for survival, but they are central to their communities. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that rural schools stay open? (900159)

We have a presumption against closure for rural schools, but we also want to make sure, through a fairer funding formula, that they are properly funded according to the cohorts of people and the sparsity of the area that they serve, rather than according to a formula that was set up decades ago.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church run a third of schools in England. How does the Secretary of State plan to improve that partnership even further for the benefit of all children?

The Church of England and the Catholic Church have been partners on the journey of the White Paper. They are already making ambitious plans to deliver what we all want to see—great schools where children get a great education in the classroom wherever they live in the country.

When a child experiences deep trauma, it can escalate their vulnerability and can display itself in many ways, including harm to themselves and others. Early intervention is key, but when residential placements are required, it is inexcusable when there are no places available locally or nationally. How will the Secretary of State rectify that as a matter of urgency?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question; we have spoken about the matter privately. As she knows, local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure sufficient provision in their area to meet the needs of children in their care. The example that she presents should not have happened. The Government are supporting local authorities by providing £259 million of additional funding to expand their residential provision of both secure and open children’s homes. That will provide more safe homes for vulnerable children.

I had the pleasure of visiting St. Paul’s C of E Academy in Tipton on Friday and met its fantastic headteacher, Anna McGuire. It was not successful in applying for condition improvement funding, so will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that schools get clear guidance on how to apply? Perhaps he will visit the school in future.

Does the Secretary of State support the chair of the Office for Students’ endorsement of Viktor Orbán, including his approach to academic freedom in higher education?

I support the chair of the Office for Students for all the work that he is doing to improve outcomes for students in our universities.

Blyth Valley is at the forefront of the green industrial revolution, but we need to ensure that our young people are equipped to fill the skills gap in those industries. We need local jobs for local people, so will the Secretary of State visit to see how we can link schools and industry to deliver for young people?

Last week, on Radio 4, a Leeds primary school headteacher said that, due to cost cutting by catering companies, they were having to challenge caterers about the size of school meals to ensure that children have

“more than one potato or more than four chips”.

Given that the Scottish Government deliver free school meals for children in primary 1 to 5, and will be expanding that to all primary pupils, what consideration has been given to increasing funding for free school meals to ensure that all primary pupils have at least one decent-sized meal a day?

We certainly recognise the pressures that some schools may face and we have been giving them the autonomy to agree individual contracts with suppliers and caterers using their increased core funding. As the Secretary of State set out, that funding has gone up by £4 billion in 2022-23 alone, which is a 7% cash increase, but of course, given the importance of the issue, I keep a watchful eye.