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Topical Questions

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 May 2022

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.