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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 721: debated on Monday 24 October 2022


The Secretary of State was asked—

Students: Cost of Living

My Department continues to work with the Office for Students to ensure that universities support students in hardship by drawing on the £261 million student premium.

I have been hearing from students from the University of Lancaster and the University of Cumbria, and I share the concerns of the organisation MillionPlus, whose report “Learning with the lights off” highlights the difficulties that around 300,000 students are facing. Has the Secretary of State seen the report, and will he meet me and representatives of MillionPlus to discuss how the report’s recommendations on bringing immediate grant support to students could be implemented by his Government?

I am afraid that I have not yet seen the report, but I will ask my team to dig it out and give it a look over. If the hon. Lady has specific issues that she wants to raise, I will be more than happy to meet her. Alongside the significant funding that we are putting into the student premium to deal with hardship in the student body, many students who are not living in halls of residence or other tied accommodation will benefit from the wider cost of living package that the Government have put together.

They will no doubt be relieved on the grounds of the rate of interest they are required to pay on their student loans, won’t they?

I know that the rate of interest on student loans is a matter of great interest to my right hon. Friend and his constituents. The switch from maintenance grants to loans that are effectively contingent upon income has been a success, in that we have seen during this period a significant increase in the likelihood of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds going into higher education, but of course we constantly keep these things under review.

I have been speaking to a lot of students in recent weeks and they are obviously anxious about the cost of living. While student maintenance loans have increased by just 2.3% on average, inflation has rocketed to more than 10%, accommodation costs are up 5%, food costs are up 14.5% and transport costs are up by 10.6%, hitting commuter students particularly hard. The result is that students are facing an average funding gap of £439 per month and dropping out, while the Government are facing a credibility gap in this sector. Can the Secretary of State tell us what students are supposed to do?

As I outlined previously, £261 million is available in this academic year to support disadvantaged students who need additional help. We have been working closely with the Office for Students to make sure that universities support those who are in hardship. It is worth pointing out that students will also benefit from reductions to their energy costs if they are buying from a domestic supplier, through the energy cost support package that we are putting in place. We have, as the hon. Gentleman said, continued to increase support for living costs over the last few years. He will know, however, that we keep these things under review constantly and an announcement on the uplift for this year will be forthcoming shortly.

STEM Teachers in Disadvantaged Areas

3. What steps his Department is taking to attract science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers to work in disadvantaged areas. (901769)

As someone who was a teacher for nearly nine years in disadvantaged areas in London and Birmingham, may I say that teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have? In 2020-21 there was an increase of more than 4,400 full-time teachers in state-funded schools in England. This has resulted in the largest qualified teacher stock since the school workforce census began in 2011. We know that there is more to be done in some areas, which is why early career maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers working in eligible schools with disadvantaged pupil cohorts can now claim our tax-free levelling up premium.

One of the key disadvantages we have in Cornwall is the relatively high cost of housing. Cornwall is beautiful and people want to live there, but what more can the Department do to encourage teachers to come to Cornwall and not to other places with cheaper housing?

My hon. Friend will understand only too well, as a former resident of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, that, like Cornwall, it too is a place of outstanding beauty. This Government are committed to ensuring that affordable housing is delivered, and since 2010 more than 9,000 homes have been delivered in Cornwall. In August 2021 we announced £1 billion of funding from our affordable homes programme, which will be used to deliver more than 17,000 affordable homes across the south-west. I am pleased to say that Cornwall is also an education investment area and has 26 schools that are eligible for the levelling up premium, including Liskeard School and Community College in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and specialist teachers in certain subjects in those schools can claim up to £3,000 tax free annually. Finally, in March 2022—

Disadvantage knows no boundaries and, likewise, we have huge challenges in our schools in Hackney. The Government promised that the starting salary for teachers would be £30,000. How close are the Government to reaching that manifesto commitment?

I am delighted to tell the hon. Lady that, at the next independent pay review, I have asked for this Government’s manifesto commitment to a £30,000 a year starting salary to be honoured for 2023-24.

Vocational Alternatives to A-levels

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that students have access to high-quality vocational alternatives to A-levels. (901771)

We are reforming technical education to ensure that all post-16 students have access to technical options that support progression and meet employers’ needs. We have introduced T-levels, a new high-quality programme designed with employers that will give learners the knowledge and experience needed for skilled employment and further study, including higher education or higher apprenticeships. We are also reviewing existing qualifications that sit alongside A-levels and T-levels to ensure they are high quality and lead to good outcomes for students.

We have some fantastic creative and manufacturing industries in Stoke-on-Trent, but many of these industries say to me that they often struggle to fill certain vacancies. Will my hon. Friend look at what more we can do to help to incentivise vocational skills to get our economy growing?

I know this is of great importance to my hon. Friend. Many different sectors face skills needs and challenges, which is why we are investing in skills through T-levels, apprenticeships, skills boot camps and free courses for jobs, giving people of all ages the opportunity to obtain the skills that industries like and that support economic growth.

There is potentially a huge number of good green jobs for young people to go into, such as retrofitting homes, installing heat pumps and restoring wetlands, but many young people do not know these jobs exist, let alone the pathways to get into them. What are the Government doing to open their eyes to these opportunities?

I thank the hon. Lady for her important question. I am proud of the Government’s record of investing in green jobs through T-levels, apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications and boot camps. Never before have there been so many opportunities to engage with green industries. We are also working closely with these industries to make sure they are at the heart of what we do.

The most popular high-quality vocational qualifications currently offered at level 3 are BTECs. Last week, the Education Committee heard evidence about the 6,500 level 3 students and 7,500 level 2 students whose results were delayed this year. The right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) rightly criticised the failure to reveal the number of students affected at the time and all the uncertainty that caused. When did the Minister first know how many students had not received their results? Why did she not insist that the number be made public?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am a strong proponent of BTECs, having been a BTEC girl myself. The Department informed us, and we acted on that straightaway. I will have to get back to him with the exact date. Looking at the whole landscape, I assure him that it has been simplified and that, most importantly, these courses lead to good outcomes for students, ensuring they have a bright future.

Educational Underachievement of Black Children

The Government will be aware that, although many ethnic minority groups have narrowed the gap with white pupils, and in some cases overtaken them, some groups continue to underachieve, particularly black Caribbean boys. At a time when there are so many skills shortages, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure all our pupils achieve their potential?

I am pleased to say that the right hon. Lady is right and a number of minority groups now outperform the average, not least the largest group of the black community, those who would identify themselves as black African, who outperform the average in a number of ways. She is right, however, that there is underperformance by a number of black Caribbean pupils, mainly boys, and I certainly undertake to her to try to investigate why. However, I am sure she would agree that although external factors such as disadvantage can influence educational outcomes, the standard of the school and of the teaching that those pupils receive can often overcome many of those barriers. If she has not already done so, I urge her to visit the Michaela Community School in Wembley, which I visited two weeks ago and which is seeing extraordinary results from a very mixed and diverse community, in a very challenged part of London.

One key reason for underachievement—of all pupils, including pupils from different ethnic minorities—is the absence of children from school. At the start of term this September, there was just 93.5% attendance in all schools, which means that children lost up to an estimated 17.6 million hours of learning. At the start of school term, we would expect to see higher rates of attendance, of about 98%. I know that the Department has appointed 13 attendance advisers, but we have 1.7 million absent children and 100,000-plus so-called “ghost children”. What is my right hon. Friend doing to get those children back into school, so that the 1.7 million persistently absent children are safely returned to the classroom?

The Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right to push hard on this issue because it is vital to the future of not only those children, but their families. He is right that following the pandemic we have seen a reduction in attendance. One silver lining coming out of the pandemic was the fact that we now have real-time attendance data for a majority of schools—we are working to complete that for all—which allows us to focus in our efforts on driving attendance in those schools. Given my previous job at the Home Office, I am particularly keen that police, schools and local education authorities should work closely together to make sure that those children who are not at school and are not findable at home are found somewhere out in the community and brought back.

You are meant to work through the Chair, Secretary of State. If you could do so, it would be very helpful, because at least then I could hear you as well.

Cost of Living: Additional Support for School Pupils and HE Students

8. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations on the potential merits of providing additional support for school pupils and higher education students in the context of increases in the cost of living. (901775)

In September 2022, the Secretary of State for Education held introductory meetings with his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That produced wide-ranging discussions, including on cost of living issues. Education is devolved, so additional support in this regard would be the responsibility of the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Government’s lead adviser on food issues, Henry Dimbleby, has condemned the Minister’s response to the national food strategy, warning that it could mean more children go hungry. Just yesterday, the headteacher of a multi-academy trust reported that children are breaking down and crying because of hunger. In Scotland, all children in primary 1 to 5 receive free school meals and from 14 November all eligible children up to the age of 16 will be receiving the Scottish child payment of £25 per week. As this cost of living crisis deepens, when will this Government match the actions of the Scottish Government to support children in most need?

We have provided £1.9 million of funding in free school meals and more than £2 billion in pupil premium. We are there to support disadvantaged students, which is why we are reforming education to give them a good start in life. Perhaps the hon. Lady and her counterparts in the devolved nations could learn from what we are doing here in England.

But of course £1.9 million is not even going to touch the scale of the problem that we have here. Recent research from PwC found that for every pound invested in free school meals there was a return of £1.71 in savings to the state. Given that many families have moved beyond “just about managing” into “just about surviving”, when will this Government match the Scottish Government’s commitment to universal free school meals for primary children and the transformational Scottish child payment?

As the former Education Secretary rightly says, it was our idea.

Let us look at the funding that we are giving Scotland. The devolved Administrations are well funded to deliver their devolved responsibilities. They have had block grant funding of an average of £41 billion a year. The Government have also extended free school meals to more children than any other Government over the past half a century. We remain committed to supporting the most disadvantaged children.

EBacc Subjects and Modern Foreign Languages at GCSE

9. If he will take steps to encourage the take up of EBacc subjects and modern foreign languages at GCSE level. (901777)

The Government remain committed to improving uptake of Ebacc subjects, specifically languages. Building on our modern foreign language pedagogy pilot, we will establish a national network of language hubs from autumn 2023. We are also expanding the successful Mandarin excellence programme, as well as exploring an Arabic language programme.

The Ebacc pioneered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has been highly successful in driving uptake of mathematics, sciences and humanities, but there is much further to go in reaching our targets in modern foreign languages. What progress have Ministers made on the development of an Arabic language programme for schools and on ensuring that more pupils have the chance to study world languages?

My hon. Friend raises an important question about the availability of more world languages, which are important for our young people because the United Kingdom operates in a global market. I can confirm that we are exploring an Arabic language programme, which will aim to build on the existing infrastructure of Arabic teaching. Our language hubs programme will also increase support for home, heritage and community languages.

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

The Department is committed to attracting and retaining the highly skilled teachers we need by investing £181 million in this year’s recruitment cycle, including training bursaries and scholarships worth up to £29,000. We are also delivering 500,000 training opportunities, reforming teacher training and delivering on this Government’s manifesto commitment of £30,000-a-year starting salaries.

That sounds very rosy, but teacher vacancies have gone up 240% since 2011. According to the latest National Education Union poll, 44% of England’s state school teachers plan to quit by 2027—22% of them in the next two years. Things are particularly difficult because experienced teachers—who may have 20 years’ experience—are leaving the profession. What steps is the Minister taking to address pay, stress and an unmanageable workload, which are driving the most experienced teachers out of the profession?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that great question, because being a teacher is so important and positive, and it is a shame that he used his opportunity to be a bit negative about the profession. As we try to recruit and retain staff, we need people to talk up what a great profession this is to work in. [Interruption.] I am being shouted down by Opposition Members, but there is not a single year of teaching among them—I have nine years’ experience and I get shouted down for simply being someone who worked on the shop floor. The lessons should be learned from the past.

However, let me tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing. We are making sure that we have the £30,000-a-year starting salary, which is amazingly competitive with the private sector. We are going to have the £181 million in scholarships and grants, including £29,000 in physics, for example. And we are going to make sure that we tackle retention and workload through the Department’s workload toolkit, which has so far reduced workload on average by about five hours.

Wow! This Government have no ambition for our children’s futures: soaring numbers of council schools are in deficit, the attainment gap is at a decade high and the Schools Bill has been ripped up. However, the recruitment and retention of secondary school teachers—not just Prime Ministers—is in crisis. Estimates based on DFE data suggest that the Government are set to fall 34 percentage points below their recruitment target. Will the Minister explain what specific action he will take to stop the rot and fix his own Government’s failure on this issue?

I am glad the hon. Gentleman has been let out of detention by the Standards Commissioner for the very naughty letter he sent only recently regarding me. However, let me be very clear that the hon. Gentleman is making a point—

Order. Let me just say that we want better taste in the House. The Minister is no longer on the Back Benches, so his rhetoric needs to be that of a Minister. I know he has that standing and capability. Come on, Minister!

Mr Speaker, I am making the point very clearly. The hon. Gentleman has an opportunity to stand at the Dispatch Box and talk up the teaching professions, talk up our schools, and talk up our reforms since 2010-11, which have seen the attainment gap narrowed—that was until, of course, the global pandemic, which has affected every single sector of our economy. Sadly, things have not gone in a way that we would have liked, but we are putting in the effort through the national tutoring programme, the £1.3 billion recovery premium, and the £650 million catch-up premium. That is an awful lot of money going into the system. We are also making sure that teachers are of a high quality, and, most importantly, that they have high-quality mentoring, an initial teaching training round and an early career framework, which give them the support that they need.

College-Employer Collaboration

12. What steps his Department is taking to facilitate collaboration between colleges and employers. (901780)

Local skills improvement plans place employers at the heart of local school systems, facilitating more dynamic working arrangements between employers and training providers to make technical education more responsive to employers’ needs in the area. All areas in England now have a designated employer representative body in place to lead on devising their plans.

Does my hon. Friend agree that institutions such as Wigan and Leigh College which work with employers to create bespoke qualifications that lead directly into in-demand work are an excellent blueprint for other educational institutions to follow?

I know that my hon. Friend is a real advocate for colleges in his area and I thank him for his question. Local skills improvement plans will forge stronger and more dynamic partnerships between employers and providers that will enable training to be more responsive to local skills needs. The relationship between Wigan and Leigh College and local employers aligns closely with the aims of this improved collaboration. It is a great example of how stakeholders can work together to meet local skills needs and help people to get good jobs. I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency to see its great work in progress.

I do not know whether the Minister was able to go to the Association of Colleges reception recently, but it was a very good way of meeting all the college leaders. Does she agree that there must be more joined-up thinking and activity between colleges, schools and universities? We were talking about green skills. There seems to be no curriculum at 16 that meshes with that at 18 and 21. I ask her please to talk to colleges and get something moving.

I was at a reception for our Love Our Colleges campaign. I am a true advocate on this matter and one thing I am passionate about is the parity of esteem between vocational and technical qualifications and academic qualifications. I ask Members please to put their trust in us as a Government, because we are fully behind all sectors and we are continuing a dialogue between colleges, schools and universities. As I have said, there have never been more options open to young people, and I am completely proud of our record in government.

Freedom of Speech in Universities

This Government are committed to the protection of freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities. The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will strengthen existing freedom of speech duties and introduce clear consequences for breaches as well as a duty on universities and colleges to promote the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

How my right hon. Friend and his team address the concerns of many that mandating university students and staff to complete training in contested theory such as unconscious bias, like the Radcliffe Department of Medicine’s implicit bias course or the University of Kent’s Expect Respect course, is worrisome, especially given recent data from the King’s College “The state of free speech” report on the increasing reluctance of students to engage in challenging debate.

I know my hon. Friend recognises that universities and colleges are independent organisations. None the less, I share his concerns that where opinions, beliefs or theories that are contested are presented, they should not be presented to young minds alone. The context in which they are created, and indeed the arguments for and against, should be presented to young people. Indeed, it is the duty of those who are tasked with the education of young minds to give the widest possible sense of perspective on all these issues.

Computer Numerical Control Operation: Training

16. Whether he is taking steps with Cabinet colleagues to ensure greater access in education to training in computer numerical control operation. (901784)

We are investing in programmes that support science, technology and digital skills so that learners of all ages—including my young son, who is up in the Public Gallery supporting mummy today—are equipped to fulfil careers in the likes of computer numerical control operation. We are delivering on that objective through our skills reform programme, which is putting employers at the heart of our skills system.

We need around 1 million more engineers in this country, and among those we need computer numerical control operators, who can earn around £50,000 on the shopfloor. I have engineering businesses in my constituency that are desperate for them. Can we please get on top of ensuring that we have a talent pipeline so that people are well paid and those engineering businesses can flourish?

I understand that things are uncertain, as my hon. Friend’s two colleges are merging at the moment, but the level 3 engineering technician apprenticeships provide CNC content and there are more than 140 providers of that training, including three with national coverage. I would also like to look at our T-levels to ensure that we have some of that content in there too.

Rising Costs: Support for Schools

The Government are committed to supporting schools. That is why we are investing significantly in education, with a £4 billion increase in the core schools budget this financial year, which will help schools facing the challenges of inflation brought about by global events.

Schools across my constituency face extraordinary financial pressures, particularly in special educational needs settings where costs per pupil are higher, and in older schools where the Government’s failure to invest in the schools estate means higher costs for heating and repairs. With inflation running out of control, which is an effective 10% cut in real terms to this year’s budgets, senior management teams are desperately worried that they will not be able to balance the books, especially with higher demand for things such as breakfast clubs as parents feel the pinch. Can the Secretary of State please inform us what representations he has made to the Treasury to address the crisis in education funding?

Notwithstanding the significant increase in the schools budget last year, we are monitoring the impact of those global inflationary forces on schools across the whole country. We are in constant conversation with leadership, unions and headteachers about their finances. Perhaps the hon. Lady does not know this, but we acted immediately when it became clear that schools would be severely impacted by the rise in energy costs, to ensure that they were included in the energy bill relief scheme. We continue to have dynamic conversations with Treasury colleagues on the importance of school funding.

School Budgets and Costs to Parents

18. What recent assessment his Department has made of the impact of inflation on (a) school budgets and (b) the cost to parents associated with school. (901786)

The Department is working closely with stakeholders to monitor cost pressures on schools. Our generous 2021 spending review package is supporting schools with a £4 billion increase to core schools funding in this financial year alone and we are protecting schools through the energy bill relief scheme, although schools and trusts remain responsible for setting their own budgets. The Government are also assisting families directly: as well as the energy price guarantee for households, we are providing more than £37 billion to help households in the greatest need, thanks to our new Prime Minister.

Data from a National Association of Headteachers survey shows that 90% of schools expect to run out of money by the end of the next school year. I have spoken to headteachers who say that while school debt is escalating, demands on schools continue to increase, and the energy crisis is only one element of the funding crisis in education. Can the Minister tell me how the Government expect schools in my constituency to deliver standards and provide additional support when they cannot afford to survive?

As I said in my earlier answer, we have £7 billion until 2024-25 through the spending review. There is the £5 billion in catch-up to maintain standards and ensure that disadvantaged pupils in particular get high-quality support, particularly in tutoring, so that they can catch up on their lost learning, because we know the pandemic had a detrimental impact. There is also the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021, which was introduced by a Labour Member, which the Government adopted and sent out as guidance to make sure that the overall cost of uniform comes down. We are taking this all very seriously, and I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and headteachers in his local area to hear from them directly and see what other support we can give.

School Places: Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

21. What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of school places for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. (901789)

We are making a transformational investment to support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities, investing £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025. That investment will deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND or those who require alternative provision, as well as establishing up to 60 new special and AP free schools.

Over the last few months, I have been working closely with schools in some of the most deprived areas of Blyth Valley. Although schools are doing an amazing job, there is a need for increased special educational needs provision to support the most vulnerable young people. While a new special educational needs school is to be built in Blyth Valley, progress is slow, and I feel that more could be done to address the situation. Will my hon. Friend please meet me to see how we can progress this matter?

I share my hon. Friend’s commitment to improving special educational needs provision in Northumberland, particularly in his constituency. The Department is working closely with stakeholders to develop a sustainable solution. The opening of the new free special school has encountered several challenges, but we expect to deliver the school places in the 2023 academic year. As part of our investment in school places for children and young people with SEND, Northumberland is receiving £3.7 million from the fund between 2022 and 2024. I will happily meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter.

I recently held a roundtable of headteachers in my constituency. We talked for almost two hours but, sadly, very little of the conversation was about teaching. Instead, we discussed serious issues around recruitment and retention of staff; inadequate funding and severe pressures on budgets; online safety; mental health—theirs and the children’s—and SEND pressures. What are the Government doing to ensure that all schools have the resources they need to provide pupils with special educational needs and disabilities with the support they need while also being able to maintain high-quality teaching and manage the huge range of other pressures that they face?

As I mentioned, we are investing £2.6 billion over the next three years in new spaces for SEND and alternative provision. We have also implemented £1.4 billion in high-needs provision capital allocations for local authorities, and £9.1 billion—an increase of 13%—in high-needs funding. The hon. Lady will know that we launched the Green Paper on SEND and AP back in March. We are currently looking at the responses and we hope to respond by the end of the year.

I welcome the Minister to her place. She inherits the Government’s SEND review, which has caused widespread concern among parents of children with SEND that the Government are seeking simply to reduce expenditure and erode the rights of parents and children to access the support they need. As the Chancellor trawls for departmental cuts to pay for the Government’s reckless economic experiment, can the Minister confirm that the SEND review will not be used as an excuse to erode further the resources that children with special educational needs and disabilities rely on?

I can confirm that the SEND and AP Green Paper—the SEND review—was not and is not an opportunity for us to reduce the support that children with special educational needs require in this country. As I have already outlined, we have increased our high-needs funding by 13% to £9.1 billion, and we have also designed a package to support the delivery of any of our reforms. That is a £70 million programme that will test and refine measures in order to ensure that children get the support and education they need, and that parents feel that they have a choice in the matter and are well supported.

Topical Questions

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.