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Topical Questions

Volume 717: debated on Monday 4 July 2022

On 7 June, day two of Arriva’s bus strikes in Leeds, a group of year 10 pupils at the John Smeaton Academy in Leeds faced a dilemma. They had an exam, but their school bus was not running. What is more, they live in a hotel 4.2 miles from the school—that is because they are resettled Afghan refugees. They woke up very early and walked the 4.2 miles to school so that they could sit their exams. Those children are exemplary students. They are very welcome in Britain, and their example should inspire us all and shame those whose striking has jeopardised young people’s futures.

The Secretary of State has suggested that it would be unforgiveable for teachers to go on strike. What is unforgiveable is that teachers’ pay has fallen by a fifth in real terms in the past 12 years of Conservative rule. At the same time, they have been crushed under an unsustainable workload, hurting mental health and wellbeing. It is no wonder that seven in 10 have considered quitting in the past year. Will he commit to giving teachers the above-inflation pay increase they so richly deserve?

I do not think that any teacher would want to strike after the damage that covid did with students being out of school. In my evidence to the pay review body, I talked about wanting to deliver almost 9%—it was 8.9%—for new teachers this year and a 7.1% uplift next year to take their starting salary to £30,000 a year. My recommendation for more senior teachers was 5% over two years.

T4. The Minister will know that I have been hugely concerned about the state of special educational needs and disabilities services in Birmingham for quite some time, and the recent damning report only confirms the fears of parents whose children are on long waiting lists for education, health and care plans, and concerns about staff being told that they are too busy to respond to emails. Will the Minister assure me and parents and children back home in Birmingham that he will be doing everything possible to ensure that SEND services, which look after our most vulnerable children, are improved in Birmingham? (900860)

I certainly agree with the SEND commissioner’s recommendations for Birmingham City Council to take responsibility for its SEND provision and rapidly make changes for improvement. I will of course continue to work closely with the commissioner and the council to monitor progress, and the Department will not hesitate to intervene further if Birmingham does not deliver on its plan to implement real lasting change. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend will hold it to account.

Last week, the Secretary of State’s flagship Schools Bill was left in tatters as he pulled 18 out of 69 clauses. Will he explain whether that was because he was bamboozled by his officials, he did not understand his own legislation, or he planned it all along? Or was it just the incompetence that we have all come to expect?

At least I am not missing in action. If the hon. Lady had looked at the detail of my White Paper rather than attempted to play politics with it, she would know that I always promised a review of clauses 1 to 18 because we are taking what is in contract with multi-academy trusts and putting it in statute. I have now launched that review to ensure that we get it right so that clauses 1 to 18 come to this place and the Bill gets through to deliver the outcomes that we all want to see for all children.

That really is quite hard to believe.

Parents will know that the cost of care is skyrocketing, yet even the Children’s Minister himself—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—admitted that the changes the Government are considering are

“not going to significantly change costs”.

Labour has already set out how its children’s recovery plan would tackle this vital issue and provide immediate help to families now. What will it take for the Secretary of State to find some fresh ideas that actually address this growing crisis?

The hon. Lady again misses the point. The package is not just about the ratios. It is about looking at how we encourage and grow the childminder market, how we ensure the 1.2 million parents who are eligible to get tax-free childcare make that claim and, of course, how we support teachers, both in our brilliant maintained nurseries and across the system, to do much more for the children we want to see them deliver for.

T6. Currently, 16 to 18-year-olds must legally continue education or training but are not entitled to transport. That penalises young folk living in rural areas such as Alston Moor, where the nearest college is 20 miles away and public transport is poor. I have started a petition calling for fair post-16 transport. Does the Minister agree with my petitioners that transport should not be a barrier to accessing education? Will the Government address the problem through legislation? (900862)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He will know that it is local authorities, rather than the Department for Education, that have responsibility for transport to education. I understand that Cumbria County Council already provides some support for travel to college for students who are disadvantaged. It is also possible to top that money up with our 16 to 19 bursary, but I am happy to discuss the matter with him further.

The number of graduates owing more than £100,000 in student loans has gone up by more than 3,000% in a single year, with over 6,500 graduates now having six-figure balances. Next year, with inflation, things could be even worse. Will the Secretary of State detail what urgent action he is considering to tackle the huge levels of graduate debt?

As the hon. Member will know only too well, we responded to the Augar report in full a few months ago. We tried to get the right balance in who pays, between the graduate and the taxpayer, so that we have a fair system in which no student will pay back more in real terms than they borrowed. This Government are focused on outcomes, making sure that degrees pay and deliver graduate jobs.

T8. It is now over a decade since I worked with the new Conservative North Lincolnshire Council to introduce the Imagination Library free book gifting scheme for all under-fives. Now, with nine out of 10 local children signed up and nearly 1 million books delivered in that period, our year 1 phonics screening shows that children who receive the free books are doing better at school than their peers who do not. Will the Secretary of State, or any Minister, engage with my local council to look at the benefits of the scheme more widely? (900864)

Indeed, the Secretary of State will engage with my hon. Friend on his passion for this subject. He knows we are investing £17 million in the Nuffield Early Language Intervention programme to improve language skills in reception-age children who most need that help. I would just like to also take this opportunity, because I know—

T2. The brilliant Sale High School in my constituency is in desperate need of refurbishment. To that end, I have been working with local partners to put a deal on the table. With the help of the Minister in the other place, the deal went to the Department’s playing field strategy committee in June. Will the Minister please apprise the House of the outcome? (900858)

I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has been pressing my noble Friend in the other place on this matter. The case for the high school did not go to the playing field panel in June, because queries requiring further information from the applicant were raised by the Department’s design team. The applicant has been fully updated on the request and the information required. The case should now be going to the panel in September and I will ensure we update him at that stage.

I hope my right hon. Friend will see this book I have here, “The Children’s Inquiry” by Liz Cole and Molly Kingsley, about the damage to children during lockdown. The number of ghost children is still rising: it has risen by 100,000 to 1.7 million absent children. I know my right hon. Friend set up the Attendance Alliance Group, but the fact is that we need to get those children back to school, and the numbers are rising. What will he do to ensure those children get back to school in September?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee. Those are not just ghost children; they are flesh and blood. We must make sure that we do everything in our power to get them back into school. The national register will identify where those children are, so that we can really focus on that.

T3. Many of my constituents who are in the UK legally and have lived in this country for many years are denied access to student finance because of unnecessary and unfair residency rules. Many applicants find it difficult to provide the evidence required, and Home Office delays mean that some people cannot even apply in the first place. Will the Minister please look into that issue and see whether any changes can be made that could help with student finance, particularly when it comes to eligibility rules? (900859)

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member, but at the heart of our system are fairness and ensuring that our policy and rules are straightforward. I am more than happy to explain that to her.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the team at Penketh High School on its ever improving standards? Ofsted recently improved its rating of the school, there was the sports gold award last week, and year 9 student Leon Stretton has signed for Warrington Wolves—a huge success in the town. However, the school’s problem is the poor state of its estate. Will my right hon. Friend look carefully at its recent application to improve the standard of the SEND building?

I very much welcome the success of the school that my hon. Friend has highlighted and will be happy to meet him to discuss the issues further.

T5.   Our further education colleges in Newham give real opportunity to children from the second poorest part of the country, but now our colleges face increasing national insurance contributions and skyrocketing utility bills. What is more, pay increases may be essential for the recruitment and retention of school staff. What are the Government doing to engage properly with the Association of Colleges to keep these engines of social mobility and growth going? (900861)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that FE colleges are engines of social mobility, and we are well aware of the pressures that they are under. We are engaging constantly with the Association of Colleges, principals and colleagues across Government to make sure that we can help them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that improving the quality and depth of technical qualifications is vital to our levelling-up agenda and also to helping everyone improve social mobility?

Yes I do. The more runways that we can build from which people’s careers can take off, the better.

T9. I am sure that I am not alone in hearing worrying reports of faith-based bullying and sexual harassment in schools. If this week has taught us anything, it is that we need to lead by example. Will the Secretary of State tell us when the Department for Education’s own bullying and harassment policies were last reviewed and updated? (900865)

I recently spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on relationships and sex education, and I made it clear that we regularly review our guidance, both on keeping children safe in education and on safeguarding.

Do the Government share my concern at the injection of vast quantities of communist cash from countries such as China and Vietnam into our universities—Oxbridge colleges in particular? Will they set up a taskforce to examine the problem and make recommendations?

We have recently added a further clause to our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to ensure that there is more transparency when it comes to the donations that our universities receive.

T10. The National Education Union has calculated that teacher pay has fallen by a fifth in real terms since 2010, while average teacher salaries are at their lowest in more than 40 years compared with average earnings across the economy. Despite that, the majority of teachers look set to be offered a 3% rise—a real-terms pay cut. Teachers in Durham deserve a proper pay rise. How on earth can the Secretary of State justify not giving them one? (900866)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. We will wait to see the work of the pay review bodies. We have submitted our recommendation, and we will wait to hear what they say about it.

At a roundtable at Heathfield Community College last week, the Secretary of State’s adviser and I heard a number of great ideas from a group of headteachers and governors. One was that there is surely a need for the proposed parents’ pledge, to outline not only what parents can expect from teachers but what teachers can expect from parents. Would that idea help us to help teachers teach?

We want to ensure that every child across the country has a complete and well rounded education, receiving targeted support where needed. We have made the pledge to parents to make that happen. If a child falls behind in English or maths, they will receive targeted support to get back on track and parents will be kept up to date with their progress. We expect parents to engage constructively with schools and to give support in terms of both attendance and behaviour, which will of course maximise their children’s opportunities.

A total of 800,000 children, more than 35,000 of whom live in the north-east, are in poverty and are being denied free school meals owing to punitive, Government-imposed eligibility criteria. Despite cross-party calls for eligibility to be extended to all families on universal credit, the Government have refused. Why?

About 1.9 million children receive benefit-related free school meals, with provision supporting the most disadvantaged. Eligibility has been extended to more groups of children under this Government than under any other over the past half century, and that includes the introduction of universal infant free school meals and further education free meals.

With the school holidays cantering up to us, can my right hon. Friend confirm that helping parents with the cost of childcare is a key priority for his Department? What impact does he expect the decision to pay up to 85% of the cost of childcare for those on universal credit to have, as opposed to the 70% that was provided under the previous regime?

The purpose of the important package announced today is to ensure that parents on universal credit, or the tax-free childcare element, claim what is rightfully theirs. We are spending between £4 billion and £5 billion on helping parents with childcare.

Ministers keep telling us that it is important for parents to claim the tax breaks for childcare. Last year the Government spent just £150,000 on advertising them, saving the Treasury £3 billion. What additional funding has the Department secured for advertising child tax credit spending?

The hon. Lady and I have discussed this before. Today’s announcement was all about increasing accessibility, availability and affordability. We want to see an increase in tax-free childcare. There is going to be a big comms campaign, so watch this space.

At the YMCA young carers festival which was held at Fairthorne Manor on Saturday, I learned that there was no central Government guidance for schools on providing support for young carers. Attendance policies can have a detrimental impact on their education and mental health. How will the Minister bring central guidance to schools to help these vulnerable people?

We are updating our attendance guidance, and I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss further the specific issue of young carers. Having met young carers groups in my own constituency, I know how important it is to engage with them properly and effectively, and we should do that throughout our school system.

On Friday I visited Hartford Manor Primary School in my constituency. Like many schools up and down the country, it is suffering as a result of the escalating cost of energy bills. What are the Minister and the Department going to do about it, as a matter of urgency?

As I have said many times already, we have put £4 billion in for next year. We want to work with schools to support them. There is support through our school resource management system, and specifically through the “Get help buying for schools” system. We will continue—[Interruption.]

Will the Minister repeat the answer? I could not hear it for the cheering when the Prime Minister came into the Chamber.

I said that there was support through our school resource management system and “Get help buying for schools”, and we will continue to support the sector and help it with the costs that it is facing.