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Topical Questions

Volume 721: debated on Monday 24 October 2022

This week we are celebrating National Care Leavers Week. As we celebrate the many success stories, we must also keep working to identify and stamp out any and all abuse. I was therefore shocked and saddened as I started to read the report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse last week. The scale of abuse and exploitation suffered is horrifying. The courage of those who came forward will help improve services to protect children. The inquiry was established by the Government seven years ago. Since then we have taken action to make sure that children are better protected, and I am determined to continue to improve children’s social care so that every child has a safe and loving childhood. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a statement on the matter shortly.

There have been four Secretaries of State for Education in the last year, and nine out of 10 schools in England say that they will run out of money this year. The dogs in the street know that the Government are so unstable as to be unfit for purpose. Does today’s Secretary of State for Education agree with me and the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) that the new Prime Minister will face an “ungovernable” and “riven” Tory party and that a general election is the only answer, otherwise things will go from very bad to much worse?

What does that have to do with education? I do not think it has anything to do with education, so let us go to Elliot Colburn.

T2. Carshalton and Wallington parents are still coming to my surgeries in huge numbers because the Lib Dem-run Sutton Council is refusing their child an education, health and care plan or is issuing an inappropriate one. Department for Education data shows that it is the highest rejecter of children across the country, with nearly half of all children being rejected for an EHCP. Can my hon. Friend update me on the progress of the SEND review, so that no child is left fighting for an education? (901795)

I am sorry to hear of the issues that my hon. Friend’s constituents have been having and the distress that that is causing for those families. In March, the Government published the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper, which sets out a number of the proposals, including on the education, health and care plans. Those proposals aim to improve the experience and outcomes for those with SEND. The consultation has closed and we plan to publish an improvement plan later in the year.

I begin by welcoming the fourth Education Secretary in the last four months to his place. For the time being, he has the best job in Government. In May, internal Department documents described some school buildings as a “risk to life”. After the Conservatives crashed our economy, does he believe that there should be further cuts to school capital budgets?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. She is absolutely right that this is the best job in Whitehall and, indeed, the most important Department, given that we hold the future of the country literally in our hands. She is right that the comprehensive survey of school premises that the Department undertook revealed some alarming problems, and we are working closely with local education authorities, multi-academy trusts and others to try to rectify those. She will know that we have invested significant amounts of money in the school rebuilding programme. We continue to have conversations with the Treasury about how we may be able to do more.

As a result of the Conservatives crashing our economy, school leaders are now warning that they will be forced to cut back on equipment, sport and the very staff who enable all our children to achieve and thrive. Last month, I set out Labour’s fully funded, fully costed commitments to end tax breaks for private schools and to invest in breakfast clubs for every child in every primary school in England. If the Secretary of State genuinely believes in delivering a great state education for all our children, why does he not adopt Labour’s plans?

As the hon. Lady will know, we already have breakfast clubs in a number of schools across the country, which are targeted at where they are most needed. Our approach to such issues is to do exactly that: to look for vulnerabilities and the areas that require assistance and then to target funding accordingly. At the start of our hopefully long relationship across the Dispatch Box, I hope that as well as doing her job of challenging the Government to do ever better, she will recognise some of the significant achievements in education over the last decade, not least the fact that 87% of our schools are now good or outstanding and that we stand at our highest ever level in the international league tables for literacy.

T7. Despite years of extensive planning and hard work, the leadership team at Brackenfield SEND School in my constituency continue to be frustrated in their efforts to secure post-16 designation for the school. That means that students leave at the end of year 11 without the opportunity to undertake further education to prepare them for adulthood. Will my hon. Friend urgently investigate that matter with Derbyshire County Council to ensure that post-16 education is commissioned at Brackenfield without further delay? (901800)

I do sympathise with Brackenfield School’s predicament. Supporting children and young people with SEND to live fulfilling lives is of paramount importance. The local authority is responsible for deciding on the age range at a maintained school, but I share my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I will investigate what is going on.

The head of the Russell Group has said that the window for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe is “closing fast” and that

“failure to move forward with UK association would be bad news for research.”

What assurance can the Secretary of State give researchers that funding is imminent and that research will be protected at all costs?

Mr Speaker, as I am sure you will have heard from other Ministers, we recognise that science and technology is critical to our future economy, and much of that originates from research within universities and other research bodies. We have made a huge commitment financially to research across the whole of the UK, and that will persist. We are dead keen to join the Horizon programme, but the hon. Member’s question is better directed at our European friends.

T8. When I visit schools in my constituency, it is often—quite rightly—to discuss climate change, and I am so proud of the passionate and smart young people across Rutland, Melton, the Vale and Harborough villages. However, I am concerned by the anti-dairy, anti-meat and, frankly, anti-farmer narrative I am starting to see, where students and children of farmers feel they are being silenced and cannot speak out in support of their families, who feed our country. (901801)

As a rural Member myself, I am very alarmed to hear my hon. Friend’s stories. She is right that we should be encouraging schools to educate children about where food comes from, and indeed about the very high standards that UK farmers have produced, not least in animal husbandry, but I have to say that there is a way to intrigue children and make them curious about some of the challenges to climate change brought about by farming. I read recently about an additive made from seaweed that we can add to dairy cows’ feed that reduces the amount of methane they produce. I gather it is in operation very effectively in Australia and being looked at in this country.

T3. About 20,000 primary school children in 76 primary schools in Trafford benefit from the primary schools sport premium. This is especially important after covid, which we know has had a more detrimental impact on the physical agility and participation of the poorest children. Will the Government commit to extending that premium beyond this academic year? (901796)

The hon. Lady knows that I am a huge admirer and fan of hers, which she may not put on any election leaflets. I can tell her that the PE and sport premium is very important to me, especially after the fantastic victory by the Lionesses. They really set the tone with the great work of making sure that sport, particularly football, is more accessible no matter people’s gender, race or anything else, so it is so important that we get this right. I am fully committed to working with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to get that premium, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss it further.

At the end of the first full T-levels cycle, can I commend colleges, including Alton College in my constituency, for their work with employers? What more can be done by Ministers across Government to encourage more employers to come forward and offer industry placements to invest in the talent pipeline, both for their own good and for the good of our entire economy and society?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I also thank his college. Colleges and sixth forms have been doing amazing work in rolling out T-levels. It is amazing, and I will just give an example before I go on to his question—

Topicals—all right. On results day, I visited a local college, and it was amazing—I wish I could bottle that enthusiasm—but my right hon. Friend is right that the key is working with local businesses and industries, which is why the whole programme was designed with them in mind.

T5. One school leader told me last week that one of his schools is preparing to offer evening meals to children whose families are struggling to put one on the table every evening, yet with nine out of 10 schools predicting a deficit by next September, few can afford to be so generous. The Chancellor of the Exchequer—assuming it is the same person next week—warns of efficiency savings to come, so will the Education Secretary be advising staff cuts, turning off the heating or letting pupils go hungry? (901798)

As I said earlier, we recognise that schools are under significant pressure, as is most of society, and we must work together to try to get through it in good shape. We will obviously be making representations to Treasury colleagues as we move towards a statement on Friday, and indeed beyond, about what those pressures are, so that the Chancellor and new Prime Minister—hooray—can make choices within a priority framework that reflects the priorities of the Government.

Ministers will be aware that at the weekend it was reported that the school in England that has recorded the best Progress 8 score, and the best measure of how much value is added during time in the classroom, is Michaela Community School in Wembley. Michaela is a free school. It encourages students to study EBacc subjects, and it is Ofsted outstanding. The Labour party opposed the creation of free schools, opposed the EBacc, and wanted to abolish Ofsted. What lessons can we learn from that?

My right hon. Friend puts his finger on the point exactly. He will be pleased to know that only 10 days ago I visited Michaela school to see exactly what goes on, having heard an awful lot about it and indeed having watched the moving documentary about the work done there. I confess to being rather alarmed by the aggression that that school attracts from the wider educational establishment, particularly on social media. Although the head of that school is obviously very outspoken, she is outspoken because it seems she has a cause. It was gratifying at the weekend to see that in the Progress 8 scores she proved that she was right.

Despite my private Member’s Bill, Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms), becoming law to reduce the cost of school uniforms, far too many schools have their heads in the sand, with logos upon logos, emblems upon emblems, and they are not responding to the requirements of the law. What will Ministers do about that?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the passage of his Bill, which is an important piece of legislation. Guidance is clear: schools should be considerate when wanting their own branding, and ensure that it is done in a fair and sustainable way for households. If the hon. Gentleman has any examples or wishes to meet to discuss the issue further so that guidance can be given to schools, I would be more than happy to arrange that.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Why are adoption figures continuing to fall?

This past year adoptions have gone up, but it is on a lower trajectory. One potential reason for that is that in 2013 a court ruling confirmed that adoption orders should be made only when there is no alternative provision. That has led to an increase in special guardianships. We will obviously keep the issue under review. The time that it is taking for children to be adopted has reduced, and we want to ensure that no child remains in care any longer than they need to be, and that we find supportive parents for them.

Off-rolling is a hidden crisis happening in some of our schools, with black schoolboys being disproportionately affected by the practice, and many being given only a few formal hours of teaching, if any at all. We should be outraged at that, given the attainment gap and the disproportionate numbers of black children who are being excluded from school. What action is the Secretary of State taking to tackle the crisis of off-rolling, and will he ensure that all schools that engage in that practice are recording the numbers affected, including their ethnicity, age and gender?

Off-rolling is totally unacceptable, and no school should be doing that or using it as a method. Where there are unruly children, we must also balance that carefully by ensuring that headteachers have the power to remove them from the classroom, because their impact has a detrimental impact on the other 29 in the class. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Lady to look at any examples she can provide, so that we can call out schools and school leaders who are using that tactic inappropriately. The Department is monitoring the issue and taking it seriously.

Arden is one of the most successful schools in my constituency and the country, despite the majority of its buildings having been built pre-1958 and it accommodating three times as many pupils as was originally intended. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss Arden’s proposal for investment through the school rebuilding programme so that we can support it to be the best that it can be?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for the constituency of Meriden and indeed for the school rebuilding programme. He will understand that I cannot comment as the bid is in and the Department must go through a process, but I am more than happy to arrange a meeting for him with my noble Friend Baroness Barran, who is the Minister responsible for this portfolio area.

As the right hon. Member will know, the legislative timetable is under review—or it was, under the previous Prime Minister. We wait for the opinion of the new Prime Minister as to his priorities in the months to come. We will have to wait and see what we has to say.

As I hope the House knows, I am a passionate supporter of the power and creativity of engineering and its ability to address the most serious challenges that we face globally. Will my hon. Friend agree to look at the curriculum for opportunities to improve the teaching and understanding of engineering?

My hon. Friend will know that in March 2022 the Department introduced the “engineers teach physics” programme to help recruit high-quality engineers into our workforce. Because of the pilot’s success, the programme has been extended across the country for the 2023-24 recruitment cycle. I am more than happy to see how much more we can do to ensure that science, technology, engineering and maths are driven through the heart of the curriculum, alongside EBacc, which is vital to helping to educate everyone.

I am sure that the Secretary of State is as concerned as I am about the number of children attending school who are hungry. Has he made any representations to the Department for Work and Pensions about raising the £7,400 household income eligibility threshold for free school meals?

As the right hon. Member would expect, we are in constant conversation with not just the DWP but the Treasury about the impact of the global fight against inflation that so many families face. It would be wrong for me to front-run what may be announced on Friday, but she can be assured that we constantly put in front of colleagues the pressures on families putting kids into schools as well as those on schools.

Even the drama in this place does not match the daily drama of the childcare juggle, so we must listen to millions of mums and dads who are asking for affordable and flexible childcare options in a system that is effectively not fit for purpose. Will my right hon. Friend reassure parents and early years educators that the Department is looking at that closely? Will he work with me and the think-tank Onward to bring about reforms?

My hon. Friend is quite right that the childcare system—not through anything other than an accident of increasing numbers of ministerial initiatives—has become complicated to the extent that there is not enough availability and it is not affordable or flexible enough. For example, some of the payment mechanisms are complex, not least tax-free childcare, so we have not seen the take-up that we expected when that was introduced. We are reviewing the entire process from end to end. She can be assured that we are looking not just to tinker, but, hopefully—with the blessing of the new Prime Minister—at something that will really provide a reformed system to give her and other parents exactly what they are looking for.

On Friday, I received an email from the acting headteacher of Reay Primary School in my constituency. She said that

“many of our children are hungry. Our cook is providing as much as she can but the children want more. This tells me that the children must be missing out on food at home. We are going to provide bread”

but the school needs more money.

I have listened to the Secretary of State answer many questions about the cost of living crisis that parents face, but parents and teachers cannot wait. What more can he do to address this now?

Order. Can I say to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) that this is topicals and other people want to get in? We are going to go over the time now. We have got to help each other.

The hon. Lady will understand—she is a fantastic champion for her constituents—that the current global economic state is very serious. Inflation is not unique to this country. For example, it is at 17% in Holland and 10.9% in Germany. We are very aware of the pressures on households, which is why the £4 billion front-loading in the spending review has been so important, with the additional funding for the national tutoring programme, the recovery premium and the catch-up premium, the £2.5 billion for the pupil premium and the free school meals programme.

Fairer funding has been a manifesto commitment for our party on many occasions. I campaigned for it from the Back Benches and tried to deliver it from the Front Bench. Whatever the timing of legislation, can the Secretary of State confirm that a direct national funding formula is a legislative priority for his Department?

The independent review of children’s social care highlighted the cost of the failure of residential care settings—both the financial cost and, most importantly, the cost to children of failed care. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to improve that care and to ensure that we move from a marketised system to a regional system, as suggested?

As the hon. Lady is aware, we are currently evaluating the three reports issued earlier this year, in particular the independent review of children’s social care. I have been working flat out since I was appointed to this role to make sure we are able to bring forward a response to it with an implementation plan to ensure that all young people in our care system are looked after, but also that there are answers and options to move forward.

Children from all over the country, quite a few of whom are in my constituency, are being home educated by parents who, unfortunately, cannot themselves read or write. What are we going to do to ensure we value the education and life chances of every single child, and do not leave home educated children behind?

It is absolutely the right of parents to decide to educate their children at home should they so wish, but as a society we have a duty to make sure they get exactly the kind of education that everybody else is getting. My hon. Friend has championed the issue in many other forums, particularly as it affects his constituency, and I would be happy to hear his ideas on how we may go further.

Has the Secretary of State looked at the full potential for education of technology to improve performance in schools? Other countries are using it in more sophisticated ways, so has he looked at it?

We want the education sector to have access to best-in-class technology, but schools need reliable internet to deploy it. That is why we are spending £232 million to improve school internet connectivity by 2025.