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Department for Education

Volume 717: debated on Wednesday 6 July 2022

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2023, for expenditure by the Department for Education:

(1) further resources, not exceeding £18,800,792,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 396 of Session 2022-23,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £21,623,660,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £54,021,048,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Michelle Donelan.)

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate in response to the Department for Education’s publication of its main estimates for 2022-23. Before I go on with my speech, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), the now Secretary of State for Education? She was on my Select Committee and was a very hard-working member. She has been a superb Minister for Universities, and I know she will carry on in that tradition in her new role as Secretary of State.

Today, I want to highlight three areas where the system can and must prioritise spending to achieve the Department’s goal of levelling-up education—severe and persistent absence, tackling disadvantage, and skills. Severe and persistent absence is not a new problem. Members across this House will know that I have been going on about that since last summer. At the Education Committee, we have been hearing concerns regarding the “ghost children”—a term that I coined last year—throughout the pandemic.

Let me set the scene. In July last year, the Centre for Social Justice reported that over 90,000 pupils were severely absent. Just a few weeks ago, the Children’s Commissioner published a report that went further, stating that an estimated 124,000 children were now severely absent, with 1.7 million persistently absent. The Department for Education’s own figures from autumn last year showed that 1.6 million children were persistently absent, which is 23.5% of all pupils. More recently, the Department for Education’s publications have highlighted that currently over 1,000 schools have an entire class-worth of children missing.

The Children’s Commissioner has laid out a mandate that headteachers across the country should be obsessing over attendance and she is right. How can we expect children to catch up if they are not even showing up? But in tackling attendance, we need carrots as well as sticks. The Government have introduced a consultation on their proposed reforms when it comes to attendance, including financial penalties, prosecutions and better data access.

Dame Rachel de Souza has said that

“we do not have an accurate real time figure of how many children there are in England…let alone the number of children not receiving education.”

That is from the Children’s Commissioner. That cannot be right. That is why, almost a year ago now, my Committee called for a statutory register of children not in school. The Government have committed to implement that, but this is a matter of urgency and ideally should be implemented by September.

The recently published book, “The Children’s Inquiry”, from the parents campaigning group UsforThem, highlights that, although the Children’s Commissioner mandate has been beefed up, the powers granted to the office do not include enforcement powers such as those granted to the Information Commissioner or the Financial Conduct Authority. The stick approach must include extending these powers to the Office of the Children’s Commissioner to help to ensure that every child, regardless of their background or circumstances, is returned safely to school at the start of term in September, otherwise we will risk a generation of “Oliver Twist” children being lost to the education system forever.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his exceptional commitment to education as Chair of the Committee, and I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role in this House and wish her well.

One of the things the right hon. Gentleman and I share, and I think others in this Chamber share as well, is a concern about underachievement. In Northern Ireland, the statistics have very clearly shown the underachievement of young Protestant males, but on the mainland it is of white males. Does the right hon. Gentleman feel that, within the estimates for education today in this Chamber, there are the moneys needed to turn that issue around—in other words, to make them achievers rather than underachievers—and that it can actually happen?

I could not hear the first part of what the hon. Gentleman said. Was he talking about free school meals? I could not hear; I apologise.

It is my accent—apologies. In Northern Ireland, it is young Protestant males who underachieve in education. Here on the mainland—the right hon. Gentleman and I have both spoken about it in this Chamber before—it is about the underachievement of white males. I know he shares my concern, but I would just like to know whether it is possible, within the estimates, that moneys will be set aside to ensure that those who underachieve actually will achieve their goals in this life?

I very much hope so. The hon. Gentleman will look at this forensically and he will know, because we have done an extensive report on the underachievement of white working-class boys and girls, that they underperform at every stage of the education system and worse than almost every other ethnic group. Those white working-class boys and girls on free school meals do worse than every other ethnic group, bar Roma and Gypsy children, on going to university. This is where funds need to be directed. The money should be concentrated on such cohorts. It is not just white working-class boys and girls; just 7% of children in care get a decent grade in maths and English GCSE and 5% of excluded children get a decent grade in maths and English GCSE. This is where the resources, in my view, should be concentrated. We need to address these social injustices in education.

Secondly, I turn to the social injustice of disadvantage. In May, the Government announced a new Schools Bill, following the publication of the schools White Paper. Media attention and discussion has centred around the appropriate levels of departmental intervention, and I know that the Department has gutted a significant part of that Bill, but I question whether this is simply dancing on the head of a pin. Of course, academies should have autonomy—I do not dispute that—but my question, and this refers to my answer to the hon. Gentleman a moment ago, is whether the Bill misses vital opportunities to address baked-in disadvantage among the most disadvantaged pupils in our communities.

Disadvantaged groups are 18 months behind their better-off peers by the time they take their GCSEs. White working-class boys and girls on free school meals underperform at every stage of the education system compared with almost every other group. Moreover, only 17% of pupils eligible for free school meals achieve a grade 5 in their maths and English GCSE. This figure expands to just 18% of children with special educational needs, just 7% of children in care and 5% of excluded children.

Exam results are of course important, and every August they understandably hit the headlines, but I am just as worried about the impact of covid-19 on younger children. We cannot afford for our most disadvantaged children to miss that first rung on the ladder of opportunity. The building blocks for achievement must be in place well before critical exam years and, indeed, before school. I am pleased to see that resource expenditure for early years has increased by 10.6% in these estimates, although capital funding has slightly decreased.

I am grateful for the focus on disadvantage by the Chair of the Education Committee in this part of his speech. Another aspect of disadvantage is experienced by Grange Primary School in my constituency, which sees huge mobility in the young people it educates as the cost of living crisis and, crucially, the cost of renting property in my constituency—and, I suspect, across London more generally—has rocketed, leading, unfortunately, to many families moving regularly. That creates huge pressures on school staff and school budgets. Will he encourage the Department for Education to look at whether there needs to be more focus on mobility as part of the funding formula, to help what I think is a good school with great staff trying to do a particularly tough job because of that mobility issue?

The hon. Member makes a powerful point. We want to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities to go to “good” and “outstanding” schools. The cost of living pressures that he mentions are powerful, and I am sure that the new Secretary of State is listening.

Further to my hon. Friend’s intervention, the other side of the coin for local authorities is finding temporary accommodation anywhere for families with children. I am sure that many families from London end up being placed in temporary accommodation in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency. In my constituency, we are seeing more families farmed out to Kent or Essex, so staying on at a primary school is extraordinarily difficult, with over 124,000 children in temporary accommodation. Does he think that those issues should be taken in the round because of their impact on education?

As I said, I am sure that the Secretary of State is listening. Everywhere we look, there are all kinds of pressures on our education system. It is not just the things that the hon. Members mentioned; schools are paying huge amounts in energy bills, for example, and are not able to afford that. Instead of spending money on frontline teaching, they are having to pay energy bills. Those are big issues that the Government will have to deal with. I very much hope that, given that the previous Secretary of State had such a passion for education and that he is now the Chancellor, the education budget will see a significant increase in the autumn. That could resolve some of the things the hon. Lady talked about.

The Education Committee’s inquiry on the Government’s catch-up programme heard that, by summer 2021, primary pupils had lost about 0.9 months in reading and 2.2 months in mathematics. David Laws from the Education Policy Institute told our Committee of his concerns that vulnerable groups could be up to eight months behind in their learning.

The Government have invested almost £5 billion in catch-up and, following the recommendations in the Committee’s catch-up report, they have ended the contract with national tutoring programme provider Randstad and given schools more autonomy to organise catch-up programmes, at least from later in the year. They should reform the clunky pupil premium so that it much better targets those most in need of support. Data is available about education related to ethnicity, geography and socioeconomic background, but it is rarely cross-referenced to provide a richer analysis. By creating multivariant datasets, the DFE could facilitate a sophisticated view of which areas, schools and pupils need the most help. It could then reform the pupil premium using those datasets to introduce weighting or ringfencing to ensure that funding is spent on the most disadvantaged cohorts.

A further key measure that I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider is provision of school breakfasts. The Government have rightly spent more than £200 million on the holiday activities programme, which is also funded and supported by Essex council in my constituency—I have seen that programme work, benefiting many children, and I support it—but more must be done on breakfasts. According to the Magic Breakfast charity, 73% of teachers think that breakfast provision has had a positive impact. Attendance increased in schools offering breakfast provision, with 26 fewer half-days of absence per year. I saw that for myself with Magic Breakfast on a visit to Cooks Spinney school in my constituency last Friday, where attendance has rocketed because the school ensures that the most disadvantaged children have a good breakfast when they start their school day.

The study also found that children in schools supported by breakfast provision made two months’ additional progress over the course of an academic year. An evaluation of the national school breakfast programme by EEF found a 28% reduction in late marks in a term and a 24% reduction in behavioural incidents. School breakfast provision should be a key intervention that the Secretary of State should look at more closely. Currently, the breakfast provision service reaches just 30% of schools in areas with high levels of disadvantage and invests just £12 million a year. By comparison, last year, taxpayers spent £380 million on free school meal vouchers.

Magic Breakfast proposes to invest £75 million more per year in school breakfasts, raised from the soft drinks industry levy—it is not even asking for more money—which would both provide value for money and increase educational attainment. It could reach an estimated 900,000 pupils with a nutritious breakfast throughout the year. That could complement other ideas, such as the deeper strategy for supporting family hubs, and go a long way to providing those children with the first step on the first rung of the ladder of opportunity.

Finally, I turn to skills, which I know the new Secretary of State is passionate about. As my Committee has heard in both our current inquiry into post-16 qualifications and our previous work on adult skills, the UK faces a worrying skills deficit. About 9 million working-age adults in England have low literacy or numeracy skills—or both—and 6 million are not qualified to level 2, which is the equivalent of a GCSE grade 4 or above. Although participation in adult learning seems to have grown since it was at a record low in 2019—44% of adults have taken part in some learning over the past three years—stark inequalities remain. Those in lower socioeconomic groups are twice as likely not to have participated in learning since leaving full-time education than those in higher socioeconomic groups. Our current inquiry into adult skills has heard that employer-led training has declined by a half since the end of the 1990s.

The Government have taken some welcome steps including the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, the £2.5 billion national skills fund, the £2 billion kickstart scheme, £3 billion of additional investment in skills and the lifetime skills guarantee. It is reassuring to see increased resource and capital funding for further education in the estimates, together with growth in the adult skills budget—although, in terms of further education, much of that is catch-up. We need to go further. Levelling the skills playing field is about how we teach as well as the financial resources that we put in.

During my Committee’s inquiry into the future of post-16 qualifications, we have heard about the need for a curriculum that not just imparts facts but embeds cross-cutting skills that will better prepare all young people for our fast-moving industrial future. On a recent visit to King Ethelbert School in Kent, I heard great things about the career-related programme of the international baccalaureate, but there are concerns about future approval for its funding. That seems to be at odds with the Government’s skills agenda. The Times education commission, in which I took part as a voluntary member, recently recommended a British baccalaureate-style qualification.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend knows my views on the baccalaureate-style system. Used by 150 other countries around the world, it combines academic and vocational learning, creating true parity of esteem between the two disciplines and adequately preparing young people for the future world of work. The Department has recently undertaken a consultation and review of the qualifications horizon, particularly to reform the BTEC system. The FFT Education Datalab found that young people who took BTECs were more likely to be in employment at the age 22 of and were earning about £800 more per year than their peers taking A-levels. I understand the need to review the system and prevent overlaps, but, just to be clear, I urge my colleagues on the Front Bench not to remove BTEC funding until T-levels have been fully rolled out and are successful.

I strongly welcome the grip that the previous Education Secretary had on the Department, and I welcome the fact that he had some success in the spending review in securing an additional £14 billion over the next years. However, we are still playing catch-up when it comes to education recovery and further education. The brutal fact is that the total budget for health spending will have increased from 2010 to 2025 by 40%, whereas education spending will have increased by only 3% in real terms for the same period. Ultimately, as for health and defence, what we need for education is a long-term plan and a secure funding settlement.

Every lever and every engine of Government should be geared towards returning absent pupils to school. I ask the Secretary of State to set out in her response the practical steps the Department is taking to address the issues faced by disadvantaged pupils who are not able to climb the ladder of opportunity. We are denying those children the right to an education. In my view, it must be the most important priority for the Department to get them back into school. It is unforgivable that there are 1.7 million persistently absent children and that 100,000 ghost children have been lost to school rolls. That number is growing. Previously, roughly 800 schools in disadvantaged areas had the equivalent of a whole classroom missing, but figures from the Department for Education show that now 1,000 schools do. That situation is wrong. It must be taken seriously, and efforts should be made to tackle it. As the Children’s Commissioner said to the Education Committee yesterday, by September every one of those children should be back in school.

The previous Education Secretary said he could not “hug the world” but I know his priorities truly were “skills, schools and families”. I am sure they are the priorities of the new Secretary of State. Our children, the workers of the future, will need technical skills but also the ability to think creatively, work across subject silos and, most of all, adapt. As our country and economy move towards the fourth industrial revolution, we must ensure our education system can adapt to meet those challenges.

It is a privilege to follow the contribution from the Chair of the Education Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). His words were brave, but one suspects a degree of worry in some of the things he said about the direction of policy, especially on the funding of the Department. I welcome the new regime under the new Secretary of State for Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan). We shall see which direction she takes the Department in.

We are discussing why we spend billions of pounds on education, and it is worth beginning my contribution on that thought. Our society puts so much money into education to try to achieve several different objectives, but I just want to focus on one. Education ought to help each person to achieve their full potential in life, and that raises the question of what our society offers to people. The British promise is that each generation can expect the next generation to do slightly better than them, and the one after that to do slightly better; and that if people work hard and play by the rules, they can expect to do well in our society.

We sometimes call that social mobility. I note that we are about to move responsibility for social mobility back to the Cabinet Office. I do not object to that, but the truth is that education, as I describe it, plays a central role in delivering social mobility, or it ought to do so. Yet the Tory Government’s own Social Mobility Commission concluded that inequality now extends from birth through to work, and that our class structures are ossified. The ossified stratification of our society is an ancient British problem.

That suggests that not every human being is achieving their full potential. To that extent, their education has to be judged as not working properly, unless we take the view—I do not think many in this House do—that the children of the wealthiest are somehow more genetically endowed than the children of the poorest. If we took that view, we could say that the stratification reflected the genetic inheritance of each child, but that is clearly not the case. The truth is that millions of people’s potential is not being realised because our education system is not working properly.

Before I talk about a distributional analysis of how we spend our money, it is worth restating that I do not take the view—very few people would—that each person’s attainment is determined purely by the amount of money we spend. The way we deliver education must of course be continually developed, analysed and fully understood. Without adequate funding, however, the rest of it must fail. The truth is that the amount of funding we are discussing today will determine the number of staff working in education, and their morale. If the number of staff is in decline and their morale low, that will cast a shadow through every classroom in the country. I think there is some evidence that that is the case, although we have brilliant teachers, staff, children and parents. Over the term of this Government, from 2010, the amount of funding per child has fallen, and it is still falling.

What was the impact of those cuts? I do not want to talk about university funding, because that is largely done in a different way, through student borrowing and so on. There are, broadly, three sectors: early years, schools and further education. There is an increase in provision for early years, but the truth is that the cuts have been savage. The first months and years of a person’s life absolutely determine how much progress they will make in educational attainment, but the cuts have cut deep. Childcare costs are soaring, and many families simply cannot afford their childcare needs. Even since 12 months ago, there are 4,000 fewer childcare providers in place.

Let me skip schools for a second and go on to FE. There will probably not be many people in the House with my background. I left school with no qualifications, but eventually I ended up doing a first and then a second degree. What was the stepping stone for me, having left school with no qualifications? It was further education—a college that took an interest in me after I failed, effectively, or was failed by the school system. There are millions of people in the same position who would like to do more, whether they have left school, changed profession or simply want to catch up. However, under this Government’s austerity programme, FE funding has been cut by two thirds. That stepping stone has almost been removed. Many people in my patch and throughout the country simply do not have access to a college as I did when I was a younger man.

Let me turn briefly to schools and the main point that I want to develop. Do not take my word for it; the House of Commons Library briefing for today’s debate quotes the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It is quite shocking, but in its placid, bureaucratic language the IFS states:

“Deprived schools have seen larger cuts over the last decade. The most deprived secondary schools saw a 14% real-terms fall in spending per pupil”

over the 10 years up to 2020, compared to a 9% cut for the least deprived schools. So the most deprived schools have had a 14% cut and the least deprived schools have had a 9% cut. It goes on to state that the national funding formula simply repeats all those problems, providing increases of 8% to 9% for the least deprived schools and 5% for the most deprived, and that the pupil premium has failed to keep pace with inflation. In dry language, the quote in the House of Commons Library briefing states that these patterns of funding “run counter” to the Government’s so-called central objective of levelling up poorer areas. We have a Prime Minister and an Administration who regularly talk about levelling up, but they have to will the means to achieve a levelling-up programme. That is not happening.

Let me illustrate the impact on an area such as the one I represent. I am one of four MPs from the Wakefield district, and Wakefield Council is the 54th most deprived council area in the country. When we look at levels of educational attainment, we see that one in five people get to national vocational qualification level 4. The national figure is twice that, and the levels of attainment in Uxbridge, the Prime Minister’s constituency, are 250% higher than those in my constituency. Given the levels of deprivation and attainment that I mentioned, we would think that Wakefield Council would get more money, rather than less, in the distribution of school funding, but that is not the case. The cuts to schools in the Prime Minister’s Uxbridge constituency amounted to £276 a child. In my constituency, they amounted to £514, which is almost twice as much. How can that be right?

I will put on my Facebook page an analysis of the cuts in our area to every school. However, to take one at random, St Helen’s Primary School in Hemsworth—I know the school, which is in a great community, with lovely parents and vital, vibrant children—has had £746 cut per pupil since the cuts began, and yet 38% of the children are on free school meals. That deprived community is doing its best against a Government who are cutting, cutting and cutting. Why should children in an area such as the one I represent, and in deprived areas up and down the country that are lacking in social mobility, have to face cuts on that scale while children in the Prime Minister’s constituency—a better-off community, with higher levels of attainment than in mine—do not?

The truth is that the Government have presided over the most prolonged and savage cuts to education since at least the war. They have cheated the children, staff and parents in deprived communities everywhere for the benefit of those who live in the least deprived, most well-off communities. That is not right; it is immoral. Today’s estimates fail dismally to make proper provision for the damage that the Conservatives have done since they took power in 2010.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place and congratulate her on her promotion. I also congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate; I have always admired his passion and commitment on all issues relating to education and social mobility. He speaks from the heart most of the time, but I thought that he made a valiant case for the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), given what we know about what went on in Downing Street last night.

During their time in secondary school, a year 11 pupil who finished their GCSEs in the past couple of weeks will have seen five—yes, five—Education Secretaries in charge of policy and spending that have a significant and lasting impact on their lives. Any state school that got through that many headteachers in such a short period would certainly have been put into special measures by now, yet this chaotic Government limp on. Time and again, we see the Department for Education, sadly, notched up as a temporary staging post on the climb up the greasy pole for ambitious Ministers.

That is a depressing and damning indictment of the way in which the Government view children and young people and their education. It is indicative of the short-term thinking that pervades a Government who are focused on campaigning, rather than governing. However, with our children being our most precious resource—the future of our nation—on whose shoulders our future economic success will be built, not only should the Department for Education be viewed as the most coveted brief, to be mastered and championed relentlessly over many years, but it should be funded as a long-term investment.

Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major told The Times Education Commission that education expenditure should be seen

“as capital investment, on the basis that its effect will linger for a lifetime”.

I could not agree more, so as we consider the education estimates, I ask: where is the ambition for our children and young people? Why is it—as the right hon. Member for Harlow said—that according to the IFS, by 2025, over a period of 15 years, we will effectively have seen less than 3% growth in education spending while health spending will have risen by 42% in the same period?

It is time that we viewed our children’s future in the same way that we view key infrastructure projects. Human capital—for want of a better phrase—invested in properly, will deliver a significant return for our economy and society. However, it does not fit into three-year spending cycles or four to five-year parliamentary cycles—although we seem to be on two-year parliamentary cycles at the moment, and who knows? We might be in a general election this time next week.

Turning to catch-up funding, the long-term economic impact has been laid out starkly by the Education Policy Institute. It calculates that without sufficient investment and support, children could lose up to £40,000 of income over their lifetimes, equating to about a £350 billion loss to the economy. With pupils having missed out on millions of days of face-to-face teaching, and with the Department for Education, frankly, failing to act swiftly to support schools or put a proper catch-up plan in place quickly, the attainment gap is widening.

The National Audit Office said in its report last year that the Government did not take action to enable vulnerable learners to attend school and to fund online resources quickly enough. They could have done more in some areas. The NAO recommended that the Department

“takes swift and effective action, including to learn wider lessons from its COVID-19 response, and to ensure that the catch-up learning programme is effective and reaches the children who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, such as those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged.”

Just yesterday, we saw the first set of SATs results since the pandemic, showing a steep decline in the number of children achieving the expected standard at key stage 2.

Alongside the educational gap, children have paid a very high price in terms of wellbeing and mental health. That is a top priority for headteachers in my constituency. Parents are at their wits’ end. I have talked about this month in, month out in the Chamber, and we all know the NHS statistics that show that the number of children with a mental health condition has risen from one in nine to one in six since 2017.

Despite all that, we barely hear any mention of catch-up support for our children and young people. The Government want to stop talking about covid—sadly, covid is still with us, although the Government want to move on—but our children and young people will bear the scars of their sacrifices during the pandemic for a very long time. As the EPI suggested, many will pay the price for the rest of their lives, so we owe it to them to heed the advice of the Government’s adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, who felt compelled—like many Ministers now—to quit in his capacity as a Government adviser because they would not take his recommendations seriously and put in the investment in children and young people that I have mentioned. He said that he did not believe

“that a successful recovery can be achieved with a programme of support of this size.”

I remind the House that he recommended that £15 billion be invested in education recovery, but we have seen a commitment to only a third of that.

We know that children and young people fare better when parents are empowered to engage with their education. That is one reason why the Liberal Democrats have called not just for the £15 billion commitment to be made immediately, but for some of that money to go towards vouchers to be put directly in the hands of parents to support their children, whether that is with tuition, sport, art or music, with whatever they need for their physical wellbeing and social engagement with their peers, or with counselling to tackle mental health issues with the advice and support of their school. Our children and young people are suffering a double whammy: they have felt the impact of the pandemic, and now they are at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis.

In my constituency, many children are going to school and having their only meal of the day there, because of the crisis that this Government have forced on the residents of our constituencies. Does the hon. Member agree that it is absurd that that is happening? Many schools are not even opening for the full five days.

The hon. Gentleman must be psychic or have very good eyesight, because he has pre-empted what I was about to say about free school meals. About 2.6 million children are in families that experience food insecurity; as he says, the reality is that many children are going to school hungry, because parents are struggling to put food on the table. Hunger and poor nutrition affect children’s ability to learn, their development and their mental health. How can our most disadvantaged children, who already have a much bigger gap in attainment as a result of the pandemic, be expected to catch up? I pay tribute to the schools and teachers up and down the country who are working their socks off to put additional support and interventions in place to help them to catch up, but how can children who are going to school with empty tummies and sitting hungry in lessons be expected to benefit from the catch-up?

I sincerely hope that the Government will think again and take the advice of yet another Government adviser they chose to ignore: Henry Dimbleby, who advised them on their food strategy. He recommended that every child in a family in receipt of universal credit should be entitled to a free school meal. To be honest, I am shocked that that is not already the case. I really urge the Secretary of State: if she does one thing in her first few days, please will she address that? It is a scandal that children are going to school hungry.

The Ark John Archer Primary Academy in Clapham is not in my constituency, but I visited it recently because I was told about the fantastic early years offer that it is developing; Ark has invested money, alongside the Government’s paltry investment in early years, to support some of the poorest children. The headteacher asked me why, although some two-year-olds are eligible to receive 15 hours of free childcare a week because they are from disadvantaged backgrounds, we are not providing them with free school meals. It just seems really odd. The school is funding meals for everybody, right across its nursery and primary provision. Whether the child is eligible or not, they are making sure that every child gets a healthy, nutritious meal.

The school pointed out to me that with some childcare providers, disadvantaged two-year-olds who are getting free childcare are having to bring in a packed lunch—quite possibly not a very nutritious one, but with cheap things that the parents can afford—and will be sitting alongside children whose parents are able to pay for their childcare and who are getting a far better lunch. I find that contrast between the haves and the have-nots really quite distasteful. When the Education Secretary looks at free school meals, will she look at the case of two-year-olds?

As has been said many times in this place, our childcare costs are among the highest in the world. In the cost of living crisis, parents are struggling even more to make ends meet with their nursery and childcare fees. Liberal Democrat analysis of Coram statistics suggests that parents in inner London who fund 50 hours per week of childcare will have seen an increase in costs of almost £2,000—I will say that again: £2,000—over the past year. That is just shocking. The problem is that as childcare costs go up and parents struggle to make ends meet with their mortgage or rent, their food and their other bills, fewer and fewer children will be put into childcare. That is bad for a range of reasons.

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. I could not agree more about the cost of childcare. Does she agree that the answer to the problem is not to decrease the staff-student ratio? I was taken on a tour of Robin nursery in Kidlington the other day; Teresa, the wonderful person who runs it, was concerned that if that ratio goes down, she will not be able to give the safe and caring level of care that parents need. She is concerned that, unfortunately, it will be the most disadvantaged students who lose out, because they are quite often the ones who do not yet have the help with special educational needs and disabilities that they need, and they are the ones who need the most love.

I could not agree more. The Government are trying to tackle the issue of childcare funding in completely the wrong way. My hon. Friend makes the point about safety and the ability to support children with SEND. Given the razor-thin margins with which so many childcare providers operate—we know that they are going under all the time—if the Government power ahead with this after their consultation, and if they really think that the saving will be passed on to parents to help with the cost of living, they are living in cloud cuckoo land, because of exactly what my hon. Friend says.

I have given the example of my son’s childminder before. She has to do all this jiggery-pokery with her invoices every month, because she has been told categorically that she cannot make it clear that I have to pay to top up the 30 hours of “free” childcare that we are meant to be getting, because it does not cover her costs. It is an add-on. That is fine—I have no problem with paying it; I am in a position to pay for it—but the point is that many parents will not be able to afford that top-up or will end up putting their children into what might be fairly low-quality childcare. Our most disadvantaged children are the ones who need the most high-quality input. By the time children start school, the most disadvantaged are about 11 months behind their peers. That gap continues to widen, which has been accelerated by the pandemic.

There is a really important point to make here. Childcare is not just about babysitting. It is about high-quality early years input, with properly trained staff who should have an early years qualification; who should not be on poverty wages, as so many are; and who should have continuous professional development so that they can pick up on things like developmental delays in speech and language, which have become even more prevalent as a result of the pandemic.

It should be about investing in our early years to help children to get on in life, but also about supporting parents who wish to go to work from when their children are at a very young age. We know that people—mostly women, sadly—are leaving the workforce or reducing their hours in very large numbers. Once again, that takes us back to the economic argument for long-term investment in children and in education. It will be harmful for our economy that fewer women will be in work and setting up businesses, because so many are having to give up work to look after their children. Finally, let me return to where I started. The Government say that they want to help Britain back to work and they say that they want to tackle the task of levelling up. The former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is now the Chancellor, has talked about children, skills and education being his passion, and I hope he will put his money where his mouth is. He is now in the Treasury, which was the biggest blocker preventing him and his many predecessors from doing the right thing by children. They are our future. They will be the innovators, they will continue to make this country great, and every single child, regardless of background, deserves the very best start in life.

If the Secretary of State will not listen to me, I ask her to listen to the Government’s own advisers, such as Kevan Collins on catch-up, Henry Dimbleby on free school meals, and Josh MacAlister on children’s social care; so many children are simply written off by the system because we have a broken social care system. I ask her to step up now, to make the necessary investment in children and young people, and to end this Conservative chaos. Our children are depending on it.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. I hope she has an ambitious plan for however many hours she will be in office before the downfall of her Government—but this is no laughing matter. The fact that we have had three Education Secretaries in three years tells us all we need to know about the Conservatives’ priorities. Theirs is a party with no plan, no ambition and no vision for our children. In contrast, education is so important to us on this side of the House that we say it three times.

Let us start with childcare and the early years, a time of indisputable importance with an impact that lasts a lifetime. The Government’s unforgivable failure to support early years providers shamefully saw 4,000 of them close over the last year. When parents are paying more on childcare than on their rent or their mortgage, the system is truly broken. The prohibitive cost of childcare means that many young couples face a choice between being priced out of parenting and being priced out of work. If they cannot afford the childcare costs to return to work, or if those costs outweigh the salaries that they bring home, work simply does not pay, no matter how many times the rhetoric is repeated at the Dispatch Box.

Ours is statistically one of the most expensive countries in the world in which to raise children, with net childcare costs representing 29% of income. We should compare that with 11% in France, 9% in Belgium and just 1% in Germany. If families cannot afford the childcare—for instance, the before and after-school clubs that boost children’s learning and development—the attainment gap grows. Those children will arrive at school to find that funding per pupil has fallen by 9% in real terms since the Tories came to power. That means that, by 2024, school budgets will have seen no overall growth in 15—yes, 15—years.

Meanwhile, many young people are still catching up from the lockdown school closures. Lockdown was temporary, but it could have a lifelong impact: the Institute for Fiscal Studies has warned that students who lost six months of schooling could see a reduction in lifetime income of 4%. However, the catch-up programme does not even come close to meeting

“the scale of the challenge”.

Those are not my words, but the words of the Government’s own education recovery tsar, whose resignation a year ago is all the evidence that anyone needs when considering whether the scale of the challenge is really understood.

Why is it that our children, teachers and schools are treated as an afterthought at every stage by this Government? The crumbs of catch-up support that are available will let down an entire generation of young people and, on the Government’s watch, the pandemic’s impact on their education will be lifelong. In contrast, Labour’s children’s recovery plan will provide breakfast clubs and new activities for every child, small-group tutoring for all who need it, quality mental health support in every school, continued development for teachers—that is essential, given that a staggering 40% of teachers leave the profession within five years—and an education recovery premium, targeting investment at children who risk falling behind. Those are not just warm words. Under the last Labour Government, our rhetoric matched the reality: 3,500 Sure Start centres were delivered on time, offering a place in every community for integrated care and services for children and their families.

Now is the time to be ambitious about education in a post-covid modern society. I believe that we should be putting tech at the heart of learning, tailoring classrooms to the modern day by ensuring that every child has the kit and the connectivity to get online. We should be challenging the norm by considering qualifications in tech and coding, providing real-world work experience, and using our ability to connect and learn with and from others around the world. The 21st-century opportunities for children, for teachers and for education should be endless. If there were a competent and functioning Government to take on that challenge, we would be there; but we are not.

Let me begin by welcoming the new Secretary of State to her position. She has been committed and diligent in her role as Universities Minister, and I am sure she will bring the same commitment to this role. I know that she has spoken out strongly in favour of skills education, and I am sure that many of us will be watching with anticipation over the next few months.

Let me also congratulate the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). As always, he spoke with knowledge and passion, and I concur with much of what he said. He talked a great deal about the number of children who are absent from school, and I want to drill down into that. In the case of some children, absence is due to illness and not being able to connect properly with schools. There are many instances in which, if we had better links between schools and homes, young people would have better access to education. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), I have done a great deal of work on the issue of children who are excluded owing to that condition through no fault of their own, and I hope we can do some cross-party work on the subject. There are other reasons for children not to be at school. An issue that persists in England, but does not happen in Scotland, is the off-rolling of children. Off-rolling to massage school results or to get rid of the problem is not good enough. These young people should still be the responsibility of the local authority and of the school, and the school should be doing outreach to ensure that they can access education. This has to stop.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morsden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about the importance of educating the whole person. She mentioned additional services such as after-school clubs. We need to be clear about those. They are not a nice add-on; they are key to the development of young people. With a different hat on, I am a volunteer coach at a local gymnastics club. Unfortunately, owing to the cost of living crisis, we are seeing young people not turning up—young people unable to access important activities delivered both in and outside schools. Such activities build young people’s resilience, they build healthy lifestyles, and they help those young people to communicate, collaborate and work with others. As I have said, they are key to development, and they should not be ignored. Amid all the talk about what is offered in schools, we must also look at what is offered outside schools for the development of a young person.

Schools are, of course, not immune to inflation and the cost of living crisis. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the 2021 spending review included an extra £4.4 billion for the schools budget in 2024-25, as compared with previous plans. While that may sound like a win, the IFS has also said that

“it will mean 15 years with no overall growth in spending. This squeeze on school resources is effectively without precedent in post-war UK history.”

The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) detailed some of the other comments that the IFS has made, including the fact that deprived schools have seen larger cuts over the last decade. I will not repeat his comments, but what he said about funding in different areas was extremely important. If we are talking about equal opportunities for those from different backgrounds, this must be looked at. Conversely, in Scotland, the Scottish Government figures on education spending show that 2020-21 was the sixth year in a row that education expenditure saw a real-terms increase. This is important, and the money that has been directed to individual schools to help them to tackle issues such as child poverty and after-school clubs makes up part of that picture.

The problem is that the IFS figures and the Budget figures do not talk about child poverty, which is the biggest issue that will affect a child’s life chances and attainment. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) talked about free school meals, and this is something that is really important to us in Scotland. We have identified that this must take place, and since January every youngster in primary 1 to primary 5 in Scotland gets a free school lunch, regardless of income. That will be rolled out to every primary pupil over this parliamentary term.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend was in the Chamber on the day that a Government Minister was ridiculing the Scottish Government for the amount of money they spent on what were called welfare payments, which would include providing free school meals for those children in years 1 to 5. Does she agree that, whatever a Government invest their money in, the primary thing they should invest in is their people and their children?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and it is not just about the money. As she says, it is about the value we are putting on those youngsters as well. In Scotland, that starts right from the moment when parents are given a baby box, followed by the Scottish Government’s commitment to childcare and free school meals, and now we have the Scottish child payment of £20 a week for every eligible child, which is transformational for families in need. Of course that only goes a little way towards tackling the cost of living crisis, but we know that hungry children cannot learn, so free school meals must be central to this and it would be good to see some movement on that from this Government.

We also have to look at skills for the future. No party or Government who have forced through a devastating Brexit in the middle of a pandemic can credibly claim to be focused on recovery. A fair recovery must be investment-led. At the centre of Scotland’s plan is fair work, which is why the Scottish Government have invested £500 million to support new jobs and retrain people for jobs for the future, as well as funding the young person’s guarantee of a free university, college, apprenticeship or training place for every young person. This is not about loans; it is about investment, and with 93% of our young people in training, employment or education—the highest in the UK—it is paying off.

On the hon. Lady’s point about skills for the future, I am sure that she and others across the House will agree that more trade with India is essential to our economic growth in this country, so does she not think it is disappointing that there has been such a steep decline in the teaching and examinations of those who want to learn Gujarati, Hindi and Urdu, which are some of the key modern languages of India? Is there not a case for the Government to look at a discrete package—very small is all it would have to be—to help to reverse that trend? It could include support for those who teach on a Saturday, often at weekend schools, and professional development for the teachers, as well as support to pay for the cost of the places where that teaching takes place.

The hon. Gentleman obviously speaks with great experience and knowledge of this area. That is knowledge I do not necessarily have, but I cannot see any problem with our young people learning languages and skills and developing links with other cultures, so this is only to be welcomed and promoted.

In Scotland we have invested more than £800 million in our further education estate since the SNP Scottish Government came to power in 2007. An equivalent investment in FE in England would be around £8 billion, not the £1.5 billion this Government have committed. It would be really good to know how the college estate in England is going to be brought up to the standards of the colleges we now have in Scotland, because we have world-leading facilities and brand-new colleges. Thousands of students are getting not just HNCs and HNDs but degrees in further education colleges such as Glasgow Clyde College in my constituency, City of Glasgow College in the centre of Glasgow and Glasgow Kelvin College in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin). I do wonder how England can hope to compete with these colleges and be truly committed to skills development without better investment.

For young people in England who want to go to university, the threat of debt is ever present. The average graduate debt—depending on the figures we look at—is somewhere between £45,000 and £50,000 for a young person in England, but what is of greater concern is the huge number of graduates who now have much higher debts than that. This year for the first time we have seen more than 6,500 graduates with debts of more than £100,000. Inflation is rocketing, and over the next few years debts will only get worse.

I raised the issue at Education questions on Monday and the Minister, now Secretary of State, responded that she had to get the right balance between the graduate and the taxpayer, but that raises a fundamental question on the purpose of education: is it about individual gain or about societal good? Nurses, doctors and teachers, who do not command great salaries, should not be expected to bear the burden of this debt in order to provide a public service. According to the IFS, 87% of graduates will not pay back their student loans within the 30-year payback period, so what do this Government do? They lower the repayment threshold and extend the payback period to 40 years. They plan to tackle graduate debt by saddling young people with ever-increasing amounts of it. That cannot be right.

My final comments are about science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—education. I know this is something that gets strong cross-party support, but I find it concerning—I declare an interest as a physics teacher—that the Government’s own social mobility tsar has talked about girls not taking physics because they do not like the “hard maths”. I want to hear from this Government how they are going to tackle that and increase the numbers of girls in physics. We have been talking about this issue since I was a pupil at school, and things have not shifted. We have tried the carrot and it has not helped, so perhaps we now need to look at the stick if we are to get more girls into doing physics. This Government need a different approach to post-16 education funding, to provide long-term security and put the interests of learners at the heart of everything. Education must be restored as a force for public good and, as such, it must be publicly funded to provide real lifelong access for all.

I start by thanking the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this debate. Like any good educator, this morning he gave renewed meaning to the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” He has also given us an opportunity to discuss departmental spending at a critical moment for school budgets.

I welcome the Secretary of State for Education to her place, while noting the absence of any departmental Ministers alongside her. The personnel in this dysfunctional, merry-go-round Government may be changing faster than any of us can keep up with, but the facts and figures speak for themselves.

The Department for Education is one of the four big spenders, so its spending is a good way to understand the Government’s priorities and choices. Even a passing look suggests that children and their education are not among those priorities, and that this Government’s choices are not made with their interests in mind.

We have heard a range of views and concerns from Members on both sides of the House in this debate. The right hon. Member for Harlow, the Chair of the Education Committee, spoke of the pandemic’s impact on young people, and specifically children from disadvantaged backgrounds. He spoke about skyrocketing school energy bills and their impact on school budgets, and his hope that the new Chancellor will now invest in our nation’s schools. He also spoke about the value of breakfast provision, which Labour’s children’s recovery plan fully recognises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) spoke powerfully about the importance of every child fulfilling their potential and how, in so many cases, young people are missing out. He recognised our country’s brilliant teachers and the impact on morale of cuts to school budgets.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) spoke with her usual passion about the value of childcare and the huge pressure of childcare costs on families. She also raised the crumbs of catch-up this Government are offering, compared with Labour’s ambitious children’s recovery plan, to meet the generational challenges head on. As shadow Schools Minister, I hope colleagues will not mind if I focus on that first.

For the last decade, successive Governments have repeatedly asked schools to do more with less. School spending per pupil was down almost 10% in the decade to 2020, which is reflected in the reality of what parents, teachers and hon. Members report. I am sure the new Secretary of State will be keen to tell us about the 2021 spending review, as the now former Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), was forced to fall back on it more than four times in response to the realities reported to him by hon. Members at departmental questions earlier this week. The Secretary of State knows full well that, even factoring in the spending review, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that by 2024 per pupil funding will remain similar to a decade ago, which will mean 15 years without overall growth in spending, the most sustained squeeze on school resources at any time since the second world war.

What is more, the broken national funding formula means the least deprived schools will receive more money than the most deprived, to the tune of almost 5% by 2023. Despite rehashed announcements on levelling up—big on rhetoric but low on delivery—the bottom line is that this Government will continue to hollow out areas of historical deprivation when it comes to education funding and recovery.

As ever, annual statistics paint only part of the picture. In addition to the historic squeeze on funding, school budgets face further pressure as a result of the cost of living crisis, made worse by Downing Street, with national insurance up, energy prices soaring, childcare costs through the roof, food prices up and universal credit support slashed. It is a perfect storm for families, schools and businesses, and the real cost is measured in the opportunities for our nation’s children.

That is why, as part of Labour’s wider offer to tackle the cost of living crisis, we would invest in childcare places for young children on free school meals. And because we know childcare pressure does not stop when children start school, we would invest in before-school and after-school clubs for children, too.

Millions of young people have just finished sitting exams and assessments for the first time since 2019. After the disruption of the pandemic, it is a credit to our young people that they are rising to the unprecedented challenges they face. We are so proud of them all, but this Government have consistently let them down.

Ministers’ miserable failure to help children recover lost learning threatens to limit their opportunities. The IFS found that an average loss of six months of schooling could reduce children’s lifetime income by 4%, which equates to a total of £350 billion in lost earnings for 8.7 million school-age children in the UK. This is the stark scale of the generational challenge we now face.

The Government’s ambition should have matched that challenge, yet the total package of so-called catch-up funding equates to just £300 per pupil. That is just £1 for each day out of school. We can compare that with the £1,685 per pupil recommended by the education recovery commissioner, or the £1,800 per pupil in the US and the £2,100 per pupil in the Netherlands.

It is no wonder Sir Kevan Collins resigned more than a year ago. His plan was rejected by the then Chancellor, who told us he had “maxed out” on support for our nation’s children. At the time of his resignation, Sir Kevan said the Government’s plans were

“too narrow, too small and will be delivered too slowly.”

His warnings have proved to be spot on.

The Government’s flagship national tutoring programme has also failed children and taxpayers. The latest figures suggest the Prime Minister’s blusterous target of 100 million hours of tutoring will not be met until all children currently at secondary school have left. Worse still, Ministers plan to pull the rug out from under schools that are working hard to deliver the scheme. Tapering funding means that schools will be covering 90% of the costs within three years. With eye-watering bills, and with food and other day-to-day costs rising, there is a real possibility that schools will struggle to deliver the scheme. It is children in the classroom who will suffer. By contrast, Labour’s children’s recovery plan would deliver small group tutoring through schools for all who need it right now. That is alongside quality mental health support in every school and targeted extra support for those who suffered most from lost learning.

As schools continue to face the pinch, so do families. As hon. Members have raised in this debate, childcare is critical for learning and development, but it is also intrinsically linked to our wider economic prosperity. Before the pandemic, children on free school meals arrived at school almost five months behind their peers. Spiralling costs will only make this worse. The average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under two has risen almost £1,500 over the last five years. In fact, the UK has one of the highest childcare costs as a proportion of average income. At 29%, we are 19 percentage points higher than the OECD average.

This is perpetuating the gross inequality that is holding women back. Some 1.7 million women are prevented from taking on more hours of paid work due to childcare issues, and we lose £28.2 billion in economic output as a result. The latest bright idea to cut the number of adults looking after groups of children will likely reduce the quality of provision and will have no impact on availability or affordability for parents.

The former Education Secretary liked to claim he was evidence-led. Although I know the current Secretary of State’s interest in data is probably limited to the number of Government resignations since this debate began, I will give her some figures all the same. Pregnant Then Screwed has said that, following the proposed ratio changes, only 2% of nurseries and preschools will lower fees for parents. Even where they do, it will be by just £2 a week. It simply does not add up.

This chaotic, rudderless Government are cutting off their nose to spite their face. Ministers’ repeated failure to prevent disruption and mitigate spiralling costs threatens to hold children back now and for the rest of their lives. That is a problem for opportunities in the classroom, but it is also an issue for our wider economy. Government is about priorities and choices. In government, Labour made the choice to transform education, and we would do so again. Our ambitious, costed plans would put children at the centre of a vision for Britain. Recognising the challenges, taking responsibility and securing children’s future, that is Labour’s approach. It is time the Government put their money where their mouth is and matched our commitment to securing our children’s future.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) on her appointment as Secretary of State for Education and call her to reply to the debate.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Let me start by saying thank you for the welcome I have received today and by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for opening this important debate. He and I share a lifelong deep passion for education, given our own experiences, and that is why education has always been my personal focus, through our time on the Education Committee, and during my time as Minister for children and families, as Minister for universities and, more recently, as Minister for higher and further education.

I am here today because of the countless teachers, lecturers, school staff, administrative staff, parents, pupils and all those who keep our education system running. They are looking to Westminster today for reassurance that their priorities matter. Exam results day is coming, and covid recovery is ongoing, so I stand here today because I cannot let them down. That is why I believe it is vital that the stories and experiences of real people do not get lost in today’s debate. Forget the Westminster bubble, if you are a parent of a disabled child wondering what this Government are doing to make your local school better equipped and more inclusive, this is the debate for you. If you are a young person building the foundations of your career at college or at university, and wondering what this Government are doing to improve the quality and value of the qualifications you receive, this debate is for you.

I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on her new appointment. I serve the most income-deprived constituency in the country, yet I am very proud that my constituency sent more children to university than any other constituency in the west midlands last year. In an interview earlier this year, she said that many of the degrees that those students study were Mickey Mouse degrees. Which degrees was she referring to?

I have been very consistent on this subject and will continue to be so; every young person deserves to know that when they pick a degree course it is of a high quality. Low-quality courses do nothing to progress social mobility; all they do is limit opportunities, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman would not want for his constituents.

If you are an adult wondering what this Government are doing to help you gain that new job, high wage or new career, this debate is for you. In my maiden speech, I said that it should not matter where someone comes from, it is where they are going that counts, and I said that education is absolutely key. I said all those years ago that what it boils down to is that it is so important that MPs, from across the House, focus on opening doors for our society and opening up opportunities.

I, too, extend my congratulations to the right hon. Lady. When I asked my county council what was the single most important thing we could do to help the SEND backlog, it gave me one thing to relay to this Government: we should increase the number of educational psychologists. I hear her passion, so will she put that on her to-do list urgently and increase their number, not just to the 200 more that we have now, because that is not enough? We need to supercharge the number of educational psychologists available across the country, to help tackle that SEND backlog.

I will be looking at everything in the coming days and weeks. As the hon. Lady will know, mental health was one of my key priorities in my former role. I recognise the importance of supporting the wellbeing and mental health of young people to their going on and succeeding in education.

I join other Members in congratulating my right hon. Friend on her appointment as Secretary of State for Education, which is probably the best job in Government, apart from children’s Minister. Opening doors for children in education is key, but making sure that we do not close them is equally important. We learnt from the pandemic that closing schools left a legacy for our children that we do not want to be associated with. Will she look seriously at making sure that that does not happen again, by giving schools the same stature as nuclear power stations and other parts of our essential national infrastructure, so that as Government policy we do not close them again en masse?

I am not the only Minister to have gone on record to say that they believed it was a mistake we made as a Government to close schools, and we certainly will not do that again. I will certainly look at my hon. Friend’s suggestion.

The estimates I commend today put the power of investment behind those principles. We are opening the doors of opportunity and building an education system that focuses on where someone as an individual wants to go, not on where they came from. Excluding the student loan book impairment charges, the Department’s resources have increased by a staggering £5.4 billion and capital has increased by £1.1 billion since the estimates last year. This is the first year of our three-year spending review settlement, which provides an astonishing £18.4 billion cash increase for the Department over the Parliament. The total core schools budget is increasing to £56.8 billion by 2024-25, which is a £7 billion cash increase compared with last year. This increase in funding has been front-loaded, to get money to schools rapidly, because we want a country in which where someone is going is not determined by where they came from. That starts with the investment in the crucial early years. We are committed to an additional £170 million by 2024-25.

I add my congratulations to the Secretary of State on her appointment. On the issue of her to-do list, I am sure that teacher recruitment and retention will be one thing she seeks to look at. May I raise with her the issue of the particular challenge that schools in outer London have in competing with schools from inner London for teachers? More funding is traditionally allocated to inner London than to outer London for salary costs. Will she examine that issue and recognise that living in outer London now is just as costly as living in inner London and that schools in constituencies such as mine should not be at a disadvantage compared with those in nearby or neighbouring boroughs that qualify as being inner London when it comes to offering good salary packages to teachers in the future?

I will take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments and add them to my ever-growing “to-do list”, as he so kindly puts it.

We are also investing £2.6 billion of capital between 2022 and 2025 for SEND. When it comes to supporting all of our children, young people and adults, schools and families, I am here, because I believe we must send a clear message today that their priorities are what we are focused on in this place. We are therefore making the investments required to entirely transform our further and higher education systems, towards a model that no other country has ever attempted.

I congratulate the Secretary of State warmly on her appointment. Will she take an urgent meeting with me on the subject of further and higher education in Malvern? Malvern Hills College, which has been going for almost 100 years, was passed over to the Warwickshire College Group a few years ago, with a covenant that the site should be used only for education purposes. WCG, having closed the college, is trying not only to sell the site, but to sue my district council. Will she take an urgent meeting?

I would be only too delighted to take an urgent meeting on a matter that sounds extremely urgent.

Before the intervention, I was speaking about the lifelong loan entitlement, which is going to be introduced from 2025. Once it is introduced, we will be the first major country in the world to provide every working-age individual with a pot of cash to draw down to use for their education throughout their life, allowing everyone to share in the life-changing skills on offer at our world-class colleges and universities.

I welcome the lifetime skills commitment, but when will there be clarity on the future status of the international baccalaureate career-related programme I mentioned in my opening speech? Given the Government’s commitment to skills and vocational education, was consideration given to exempting the career-related programme of the international baccalaureate from the approval process for level 3 qualifications?

I will be looking at that in the coming days and hope to be able to update my right hon. Friend shortly. As a result of the lifelong loan entitlement, the UK will be upskilling and reskilling, supercharging our workforce, where the true potential of education to support social mobility, improve skills and beat the cost of living crisis will be unleashed.

Schools and early years are the power behind the great engine of social mobility in this country. I would not be standing here today had it not been for the inspiring teachers who helped me, lifted me up and supported me throughout my school education, and I know many Members across this House feel the same. That is why core funding for schools will rise by an extraordinary £4.7 billion by 2024-25 compared with previously announced plans, and this year, 2022-23, the schools budget will increase by £2.4 billion. The 2020-21 spending review increases that further with another £1.6 billion for the coming year. This will go directly to schools to help them respond to the pressures that so many of them are facing, especially at this time.

I agree that the certainty that those budgetary increases year on year provide schools in my constituency and across the country is extremely important, but the Department is also responsible, almost entirely, for the budget for the primary PE and sport premium, which is worth £320 million per year and is helping improve the quality of physical education activity and sport in our primary schools. Until now, apart from one occasion when there was a three-year settlement, we have had a cycle of schools waiting once to year to find out whether they could continue courses or keep staff for another academic year. Will the Secretary of State look at that as part of her lengthening to-do list and see if there is a way, working with other Departments including particularly the Department of Health and Social Care, to ensure that budget commitment can be more than just annually and instead be made further into the future, as is the footing for the school budget more generally?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, especially in terms of our efforts to tackle childhood obesity. I will take that issue forward over the coming days and look at it.

Families hold our country together and form the basis of a child’s future, and indeed the futures of all of us: invest in families and by proxy we will be investing in the rest of a child’s life. My focus will therefore be on lifting up families in need to ensure that children get the same opportunities and support regardless of where they come from. That is why we are investing over £200 million a year in our holiday activities and food programme, providing free school holiday club places with enriching activities and healthy meals for children who receive benefits-related free school meals. All 152 local authorities in England are delivering this programme, leaving no child behind because of where they come from.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her appointment to her new role. One of my passions is early intervention, and in Rotherham we have a fantastic early-intervention team that works with families pre-birth to make sure that every child has the necessary support around them when they get to school. I am a huge fan of the Sure Start system; can the Minister assure us that early-intervention systems will get the money they need under her guardianship?

I certainly can give that reassurance. The evidence highlights the importance of those formative years, which is why we rolled out the family hubs programme and have listened carefully to the evidence. We also continue to invest in early education, with an additional £170 million by 2024-25 to increase the hourly funding rates.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) mentioned many things in his opening speech that I am particularly passionate about and that he will know I have mentioned before, including the pupil premium and breakfast clubs. He also referred to ghost children, and I want to address that in particular. Far from being ghosts, these children are, of course, flesh and blood, and they must be supported back into school so they, too, can go on and seize those opportunities and reach for the stars.

We are currently implementing a comprehensive attendance strategy to ensure no child is left behind and to tackle the root causes of non-attendance once and for all. We have established an alliance of national leaders from education, children and social care, and allied services to work together to raise school attendance and reduce persistent absence. Measures to establish a registration system for children who are not in school were included in the Schools Bill that was introduced in the other place on 11 May. I agree with my right hon. Friend about the importance of these measures and those that have previously been announced to ensure no child falls through the cracks. In fact, that will be the theme of my leadership of this Department: ensuring no child falls through the cracks in our education system.

The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) rightly raised the importance of covid recovery in education. Our core funding sits alongside a further targeted package of £2 billion over the spending review period. Together with existing ambitious plans, including for the delivery of up to 6 million tutoring courses and 500,000 training opportunities for teachers and staff, it takes to almost £5 billion the announced overall investment that is specifically dedicated to pupils’ recovery. Importantly, it will deliver an increase in funded learning hours to 40 hours for 16 to 19-year-olds—those with the least time left in education. It also includes an additional £1 billion of flexible funding directly to schools to support catch-up, so that those who know best about the education of their young people can decide how to utilise that money and support those pupils. The funding will extend the recovery premium for a further two academic years, with primary schools continuing to benefit from an additional £145 per eligible pupil, while the amount per eligible pupil in secondary schools is expected to be nearly double.

In conclusion, I am here today regardless of what is happening elsewhere in Westminster, because the people’s priorities remain the same and somebody has to deliver on them in education. I cannot, in all good faith, let down the millions of people who rely on the education system day in and day out, and I will not stop working for them. By making the UK a skills superpower, we are delivering an economy that works for all and provides opportunities for all. By upgrading and uplifting our schools, we are delivering a system that values the talents of every child, regardless of where they come from. By giving families the support they need to thrive, we are delivering a country we can all be proud of. I therefore commend the departmental estimates to the House.

I start by referring to the comments of the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). He might be surprised to learn that I have a lot of sympathy for what he said; we do not do enough for disadvantaged pupils, and I have tried to respond on that. He is right about further education, too, which is why I have visited my college more than 100 times since being elected as an MP. FE colleges are special places that transform people’s lives, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I regard the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) as an hon. Friend, and she is right that there are too many Education Secretaries. We put great emphasis on the NHS and the economy, and I accept that we need to do that, but we need to do the same for education, and I hope the Secretary of State is in post for longer than 10 months. I welcome what the hon. Member for Twickenham said about early years and free school meals. I also welcome what the Secretary of State said in response about the holiday activities programme, and about the fact that she is open to the ideas for school breakfasts. The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) talked about childcare, and I have a lot of sympathy for what she said.

The Government are doing some good things in education. Nearly 2 million more children are in good or outstanding schools, and our literacy rates have gone up. I appreciate what the SNP spokesperson said, and she is right that we must get more women into science, technology, engineering and maths—absolutely. I also thank the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), the Labour spokesman, for his remarks.

In conclusion, let me touch on what my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) said. The Schools and Educational Settings (Essential Infrastructure and Opening During Emergencies) Bill, which I introduced, sets out that if the Government were to try to close schools again, the Children’s Commissioner would have a veto over the decision—both the current and the previous Children’s Commissioner have supported the Bill—and that there should be a vote every few weeks in Parliament if schools are closed. We should never, ever, close our schools again, and I hope that the Secretary of State will look at that Bill.

Above all, we need to see action on absent children. It is unforgiveable that we are destroying these children’s lives. I hope that when the Secretary of State comes back to the House, she can report that significant progress has been made. Even if we cannot get every child back, we should have most children back by September, if not before. Finally, let us have that long-term plan for education and a secure funding settlement. Now that the Secretary of State’s predecessor is in the Treasury, let him put his money where his mouth is and fund education in the way that it should be funded.

Question deferred (Standing Order No. 54).