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Volume 723: debated on Monday 28 November 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Young People’s Social Mobility: Student Finance Rules:

1. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of changes to student finance rules on young people’s social mobility. (902426)

We have always believed that anyone who wants to, and can benefit from it, should get access to a world-class higher education. Since we took over from Labour, 18-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds are 82% more likely to enter full-time higher education—that is for 2021 compared with 2010. Our reforms will make student loans more sustainable and fairer for graduates and taxpayers, and will help to boost learning across a lifetime, not just in universities. A full equality impact assessment of the changes has been conducted and was published on 24 February.

In his autumn statement, the Chancellor spoke for nearly an hour but failed to mention students once. The Office for National Statistics reports that three in 10 students are skipping lectures to save money and a quarter have taken on new debt because of the dire economic situation. Why are the Government neglecting students who are buckling under the pressure of the cost of living crisis?

I assure the hon. Lady that the Chancellor did mention teaching and all our teaching staff, which of course includes university teaching staff. 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. Any student who is struggling should speak to their university about the support it offers. Many universities are doing a fantastic job to provide further support: the University of Leeds has increased its student financial assistance fund almost fivefold to £1.9 million; Queen Mary University of London has a bursary scheme for lower-income families; and Buckinghamshire New University has kept its accommodation rates for halls of residence at pre-pandemic levels, so a lot of support is on hand for students.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new role and wish her all success. I strongly support the reforms to make the student loan repayment system fairer for students so that graduates will no longer repay more than they have borrowed in real terms. That is good news. Does she agree that Conservative Governments have delivered on our commitment to address student loan interest rates?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his welcome. We did commit to address student interest rates and we have delivered on that, which I am sure all hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome.

Cost of Living: Government Support for Schools and Parents

2. What support the Government are providing to help (a) schools and (b) parents with the cost of living. (902428)

I recognise the current challenges faced by families and public services. We know that things are tough out there, which is why we are acting in the national interest and why we have secured funding to increase the schools budget by £2 billion next year and the year after. All education settings are benefiting from the energy bill relief scheme, which will protect them from excessively high energy bills over the winter. In addition, we are committed to supporting the most vulnerable households through the toughest part of the year with additional direct support, and we are supporting schools and parents to make sure that we can all get through this.

I, too, welcome the Education Secretary and her team to the Front Bench. I thank her for that response, but I point out that due to runaway costs, schools can barely stay open for five days a week, let alone provide transport. Home-to-school transport is being pared back and public transport, certainly in east Durham, is unreliable and deteriorating. Can she give us some good news and tell us what she is doing to ensure that schools can afford to pay their heating bills and stay open? How will she guarantee access to education during the cost of living crisis?

I can give the hon. Gentleman good news, because we heard in the autumn statement that education will be funded by an extra £2 billion next year and the year after. We will be working through how that will affect schools; each school will get its individual allocation. School funding is £4 billion higher this year compared with last year, and the autumn statement has confirmed that increase, which takes the core schools budget to an historic high of £58.8 billion. That will deliver significant additional support to pupils and teachers and will, I am sure, be welcomed by the sector.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to promote the Government’s Healthy Start scheme, and to ensure that eligible families receive the vouchers to which they are entitled?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Healthy Start scheme, on which we are working with the Department of Health and Social Care, delivers healthy foods and milk for women over 10 weeks’ pregnant or anyone with a child under four. Beyond this, our investment in families is very important, and we are also investing £300 million in the Start for Life family hubs, which will complement all of the others. We will of course make sure that people are aware of all the schemes in those family hubs.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her new position, and indeed her team.

It was deplorable that the Chancellor failed to expand free school meals in his autumn statement. It means that at least 100,000 schoolchildren in poverty in England will continue to be denied a nutritious meal at school, which puts additional pressure on parents trying to provide for them. Will the Secretary of State urge the Chancellor to replicate the work of the Scottish Government, who have committed to providing universal free school meals to all primary children?

We understand the pressures that many households are under, and that is why we are spending more than £1.6 billion per year so that children have access to nutritious meals during the school day and in holidays. The Government have indeed expanded free school meals more than any other Government in recent decades. We have put in place generous protection that means families on universal credit will also retain their free school meal eligibility. We now have a third of children in this country on free school meals, and I know that is very welcome for the families. We will have extended free school meals, and we will continue to support further education students with them as well.

Accessible and Affordable Childcare

We are committed to improving the cost, choice and accessibility of childcare, and have spent more than £20 billion over the last five years supporting families with the cost of childcare.

The Government are knowingly underfunding the entitlement to 15 or 30 hours of childcare by over £2 per hour, thereby forcing providers to cross-subsidise and leading to astronomical costs for parents. New Ofsted data shows that 4,000 childcare providers closed within the year to March 2022, thereby further limiting access to childcare. When parents are having to pay more for their childcare than on their rent or mortgage, and adults without children are saying that childcare costs are forcing them out of parenting and precluding them from that, does she agree that she and the Government are presiding over a broken childcare system?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Childcare is of course enormously important, and it is this Conservative Government who have expanded the childcare offer successively over a number of years. Last year in the spending review, we set out an additional £500 million to come into the sector, and we are also supporting private providers with their energy bills this year.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 4MC.]

SEND Delivery: Rural Areas

All local authorities, including those in rural areas, are subject to robust special educational needs and disabilities inspections, and Ofsted will shortly be announcing plans for a strengthened inspection framework. This is an area that both the Education Secretary and I are incredibly passionate about, and one which she knows from her time as a Health Minister and I know from my time as the Minister for disabled people. Today, my right hon. Friend has sent letters to those in the sector confirming that we will publish a full response to the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper, with an improvement plan, early in the new year.

Many of my secondary school heads believe that, with the further devolvement of responsibility away from local education authorities, they could significantly enhance provision in their rural area. Would my hon. Friend agree to meet my school heads to discuss their ideas?

I would like to thank my hon. Friend for a productive discussion last week. I absolutely agree with her—I know she is a former teacher—that empowering schools is crucial to ensure we have the right provision for SEND children in rural areas. The SEND and AP Green Paper proposed new standards based on the evidence of what works to make sure that local schools feel the sense of empowerment she so rightly talks about. Of course, if her heads write to me, I would be happy to respond.

The excellent community-run Ted Wragg Trust, which runs all the secondary schools in my constituency of Exeter, recently wanted to take over a failing local school—it started as a Steiner school, was then pushed on to another provider, which failed, and it has now been pushed on to another one—but the Government have decided not to allow that to happen. Could she explain—if not now, then perhaps in writing to me—why the Government did not listen to this very good idea to expand and improve local special educational needs provision in my constituency, but stuck to their ideological obsession with privately-run academies?

I will be happy to look into that in detail and write to the right hon. Gentleman further about it, but I would say that the Department is working to improve all schools in terms of SEND needs across different sectors and we are working with all of them.

While this Government have been preoccupied with their own internal disputes, the trashing of the UK economy and an endless merry-go-round of ministerial reshuffles, children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families are left to suffer. It is now eight months since the publication of the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper and more than four months since the consultation closed. The Minister’s predecessor had promised a response to the consultation by the end of the year. Can the new Minister confirm when the full results of the consultation and the Government response will be published, because children with SEND and their families have already been waiting for far too long?

If the hon. Lady had been listening, she would know that I just said we will be publishing early in the new year; if she was not just reading out a scripted question, she might have cottoned on to that point. This is an important area. I have many affected constituents so have seen all of this first hand, as I have in previous roles and from talking to parents across the country. We want to make sure that we are delivering for parents and children with SEND. We will set out that paper early in the new year addressing many of the challenges they are currently facing.

School Places: Pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

5. What steps her Department is taking to increase the number of school places for pupils with (a) special educational needs and (b) disabilities. (902431)

7. What steps her Department is taking to increase the number of school places for pupils with (a) special educational needs and (b) disabilities. (902433)

21. What steps her Department is taking to increase the number of school places for pupils with (a) special educational needs and (b) disabilities. (902448)

We are making a transformational investment in SEND places by investing £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to help deliver new places and improve existing provision for children and young people with SEND or who require alternative provision as well as up to 60 new special and AP free schools.

I welcome that news and investment. Wiltshire Council has a policy of investing, particularly in mainstream places for children with special needs, and I applaud that. Does the Minister agree that that means parents need proper accountability for the performance of the schools their children are going to, and will she encourage Ofsted to do more to appraise mainstream schools on the support they give to children with special needs?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for Wiltshire and I applaud the council on the work it is doing. Ofsted is revising its framework on this area, which was set out in the Green Paper earlier this year. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that we are also looking at better local and national dashboards to improve local accountability.

I thank the Minister, who has already said that the consultation results will come out in January, but day in, day out in Leicestershire we hear cases involving parents who have had to struggle and fight to get SEND support, which is one of the biggest problems they face. Will that be put at the heart of the review? Secondly, the Minister talked about the £2.6 billion. How can the likes of Leicestershire get hold of some of that cash to improve one of the biggest areas of struggle in SEND provision?

My hon. Friend is right that many parents find the system adversarial. That is one of the key things we are seeking to address by making what parents can expect much clearer and by simplifying and digitising their EHCP—education, health and care plan—application process, among our other measures. Meanwhile, Leicestershire will continue to be supported through its delivering better value programme, among other things.

Since I was elected in Ipswich we have had two new special schools, the Sir Bobby Robson School, which now has 60 pupils, and the Woodbridge Road Academy, currently in temporary buildings and moving into permanent buildings in 2023, with 16 pupils going up to 60 pupils. However, the Sir Bobby Robson School is already very over-subscribed and I imagine the same will be the case for the Woodbridge Road Academy. Will the Minister visit Ipswich to meet me and the heads of both schools to discuss how the funding formula could be tweaked to ensure that Suffolk SEND is fairly funded and that we have more top-quality places in special schools for the wonderful neuro-diverse thinkers in Ipswich?

My hon. Friend has spoken to me multiple times about the excellent school provision in his area, and I would be delighted to visit and see more for myself.

I welcome the Minister and the whole Front-Bench team to their new roles. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that children from low-income backgrounds are more likely to have a special educational need but less likely to receive support or interventions that address their needs. I note the comments the Minister has just made, but given that Barnsley has one of the highest numbers of EHCPs in the country, can she guarantee that she will move heaven and earth to make sure schools have the resources they need for this specialist provision?

We absolutely need to address the plight of low-income families struggling with the system when their children have SEND. The amount of funding that has gone into the SEND high needs block has risen by 40% over the last three years, so we are putting the funding in, but we absolutely need to ensure that it is going to the right families.

Teaching assistants providing one-to-one support are vital for children with additional needs to succeed in the classroom, but many are leaving because the pay is too low for them to survive during the economic crisis. What steps are Ministers taking to improve both recruitment and retention rates for SEND teaching assistants?

I point to the £2 billion extra funding that is going into the schools system next year and the year after as well as the huge increase of funding that I just mentioned going into the SEND sector.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her place and indeed the whole ministerial team. I acknowledge the extra money going in from the autumn statement, but when I met the Hoyland Common Academy Trust, I was told that its energy bills are going up by 400% and that budgetary pressures mean that support for all pupils—including those with SEND—will be affected. I have written to the Secretary of State along with my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), so will she meet us to discuss that further?

As I have mentioned, there is extra money going into the schools system, which was set out in the autumn statement. The energy relief scheme, which is helping schools with their energy bills, will also last throughout the winter.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. High needs pupils need

“the right support in the right place at the right time”.

Those are not my words but those of the Government’s Green Paper, and yet BBC local radio in Worcestershire is reporting today that a nine-year-old with autism missed a year of education because our specialist schools are full and he could not get the support that he needed in mainstream. Instead, he was offered a placement 110 miles away, but that fell through. What progress has been made in spending the billions of extra high needs capital announced at the spending review? When can we expect more provision in Worcestershire?

It is absolutely tragic that anyone might spend that amount of time outside of school. In March we announced £1.4 billion of high needs provision capital allocations, of which Worcestershire is receiving just over £10.7 million between 2022 and 2024 to help create new places in both mainstream and special schools. It is up to the local authority to determine how best to use that funding. However, the practice of sending children very far away is one thing that we would like to address in our response to the Green Paper.

Students: Cost of Living Support

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), for her authenticity and passion for skills. 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. The Government have also introduced the Energy Prices Act 2022, which ensures that landlords pass energy bill discounts on to tenants, including students.

The Office for National Statistics has reported that more than half of students are facing financial difficulties and a quarter are taking on extra debts. Indeed, I recently met student union reps who confirmed that. Students must not be the forgotten victims of the cost of living crisis. The Government claim that they support learning for life, yet part-time, often mature students face particular challenges in the cost of living crisis. Will the Minister look at the Open University’s recommendations calling for the extension of maintenance loans to undergraduate students studying part time, an extension to parents’ living allowance and childcare grant for all part-time undergraduate students and the introduction of maintenance bursaries for undergraduate students who are in most need?

I have great admiration for the Open University and will of course look at those recommendations carefully. However, I reiterate that we are doing everything possible to help students with financial hardship. I mentioned the £261 million student premium and the help with energy bills meaning that students who are tenants of landlords will get up to £400. The student loan has been frozen for the past few years. Students facing hardship can apply for special hardship funds and can also have their living costs support reassessed. The hon. Member will know that, as has been highlighted, interest rates over the next couple of years will increase only in line with the retail price index.

I welcome the new Secretary of State and the rest of her team to the Front Bench. On 19 October, in a written parliamentary question, I asked the previous universities Minister, the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns), whether she had conducted an equalities analysis of the impact of rising prices on students. In short, the Government had not, so do they have any idea of how the cost of living is affecting students from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds?

We know that the cost of living is affecting students from all backgrounds, and especially disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why, as I mentioned, students can draw on the £261 million student premium; why students facing hardship can access their university’s hardship fund; why students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who find that their living costs have increased significantly, can apply to have their costs reassessed; and why we have increased the maximum loans and grants by 2.3% this academic year to try to help students. In every possible way we are trying to help students who face financial hardship.

Education Recovery: Support for Pupils

It is a pleasure to be back, Mr Speaker. The Government are spending £5 billion to help children recover from missed education as a result of covid lockdown periods. That includes up to 100 million tutor hours for five to 19-year-olds and a catch-up and recovery premium paid directly to schools to provide evidence-based approaches to help pupils catch up, and all 16 to 19-year-olds in education will receive an extra 40 hours of teaching a year.

Students in my Dudley North constituency need and deserve the best possible education. As they are our future workforce, businesses and public services depend on that. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that all Dudley schools have access to the best facilities, the best funds and the best teachers as they recover from time lost during covid and, moreover, historically poor access to the best lifetime opportunities?

Fifty-five educational investment areas, including Dudley, are being prioritised for funding to help strong multi-academy trusts to grow and to help improve underperforming schools. Nearly all secondary schools in Dudley are eligible for the levelling-up premium, which is a £3,000 tax-free bonus for maths, physics, chemistry and computing teachers in the first five years of their careers who work in schools where they are needed most. The Government are using every tool available, including funding, to help ensure that every child can catch up on lost education due to the pandemic.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming pupils and teachers from Pontypridd High School who are in the Public Gallery? The teachers do fantastic work in trying to catch up from covid, but one of the increased pressures on time is the rise and threat of harmful incel culture in our schools. None of the past four Education Secretaries has made any public comment on the rise of misogynistic ideology in our schools, so will the Secretary of State outline her plans to support teachers, who deal with that day in, day out, in their efforts to tackle incel culture, which poses a unique threat for women and girls across society?

I join the hon. Lady in welcoming the school pupils in the Public Gallery today—it is very good to have children visiting the Houses of Parliament, and I welcome all children who love to come to our House. I also agree with her about having a respectful culture in our schools. It is hugely important, both online and offline, that pupils and staff feel safe and respected in our schools.

Headteachers across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke see the importance of the national tutoring programme, but they were concerned when Schools Week reported that £150 million could be clawed back from the scheme through the Treasury. Will the Minister back the plan that I was hoping to initiate when I was in the Department—albeit briefly—and make sure that we reinvest that in the third year of the national tutoring programme to increase the grant to nearly 50%?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the passionate way in which he conducted the role of Schools Minister in the Department and for bringing to that role all his experience as a schoolteacher. We have allocated almost £5 billion to catch-up programmes, including £1.5 billion to tutoring. My hon. Friend is right: because the evidence about the effectiveness of one-to-one and small-group tuition is so strong, we want schools to use the money we have given them for that. We have been clear that the national tutoring programme funding can be used only for tutoring and that the Department will recover any unspent NTP funding.

Helping children to catch up after the pandemic is partly about providing fit-for-purpose facilities, but the Government’s plan to cut education capital spending by £1 billion in real terms puts that at risk. Tiverton High School has been waiting for more than a decade to be rebuilt. Can the Minister guarantee that my constituents will not have to wait another decade? Will they finally see the rebuild approved in the next funding allocation?

We have been spending £13 billion on capital since 2015. The Department has met representatives from Tiverton High School to discuss its buildings. We are currently in the process of assessing nominations for the school rebuilding programme; we expect to prioritise up to 300 schools in the financial year to 2023. An announcement of the successful bids under that programme will be made before the end of the year.

Financial Education in Secondary Schools

I am a passionate champion of an education that gives children the real-world knowledge and skills that they need for later life. A good grounding in maths for children is essential for understanding things like interest rates, compound interest and the changing landscape of financial products. On Thursday, I was pleased to visit Chesterton Primary School in Battersea with the Schools Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), to mark the first ever set of national data on children’s times tables, alongside announcing up to £59.3 million of investment to continue to increase the quality of maths teaching.

In conversation with my local Jobcentre Plus team earlier this year, I was told that the No. 1 thing missing for school leavers is employability skills, which are partly about understanding finances, bank accounts, loans, credit cards and taxes—all the stodgy, boring, grown-up stuff. Does my right hon. Friend agree that making sure that school leavers are equipped with information about those things will stop them getting into financial difficulty as young adults and will set them up well for the future?

I agree that understanding finances is essential; I learned that myself in my Saturday job at St John’s market, where I worked in a shop from the age of 13. Education on financial matters also provides an opportunity to teach about fraud. Pupils receive financial education throughout the national curriculum in mathematics and citizenship; for pupils of secondary school age, that includes compulsory content covering the functions and uses of money, financial products and services, and the need to understand financial risk.

Degree Apprenticeships

I am currently the only degree apprentice in this House, but I am determined to ensure that I am the first of many. We have seen year-on-year growth in degree-level apprenticeships, with more than 148,000 starts since their reintroduction in 2014, including apprenticeships in law, accounting and clinical science. We are working in schools and colleges and with UCAS to ensure that more young people are aware of the benefits of apprenticeships. We are making £8 million available to higher education providers to expand their degree apprenticeship offers.

In Southend West, 830 young people are undertaking degree apprenticeships, including many at our outstanding South Essex College. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if local businesses that require mechanics, bricklayers, lawyers and so on could be incentivised to connect with the college and help to train apprentices, rather than just providing work placements, it would be a brilliant way for local employers not only to headhunt the best students for good jobs, but to provide better-quality apprenticeships, boost opportunities and boost our local economy?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who continues to champion students and businesses in Southend West. The local skills improvement plans that we have introduced under the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022 will place employers at the heart of local skills systems and will facilitate more dynamic working arrangements among employers, colleges and other skills providers. Essex Chambers of Commerce has recently been chosen to lead on the development of an LSIP for the Essex, Southend-on-Sea and Thurrock area. It is good to see that South Essex College is working with Essex Chambers of Commerce to achieve that.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their new positions, or back to their old ones. From her work on the Public Accounts Committee, among other things, she will know of the desperate need in this country for digital and cyber skills. At the recent Silicon Milkroundabout, a special day called Next Gen was set up to encourage companies to take on new graduates or people with lower qualifications, but companies said that they would only really take people with three years’ postgraduate experience. Does she think that there is an opportunity in the sector to boost apprenticeships? Would she be willing to work with businesses in Shoreditch to promote them?

I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. I would be very happy to work with businesses in Shoreditch. When I was the skills and apprenticeships Minister, I worked with Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, and I know that it is vital for digital and cyber offers to be made across the landscape. I recently visited Aston University, which is working with a local college to develop an institute of technology to provide, for instance, much-needed digital apprenticeships and full-time courses, and I would be happy to work with anyone who wants to ensure that that vital provision continues.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her latest position—she has had a dizzying array of jobs recently, so it is great to see her in this post, as I know that she has a real commitment to skills and apprenticeships.

I do not know whether the Secretary of State has had an opportunity to speak at length with the new Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), but when he chaired the Education Committee he stressed the need for greater flexibility in the apprenticeship levy. He spoke powerfully about too much of it being spent on managerial apprenticeships, and the Committee agreed entirely, so it was a considerable disappointment to hear last week that the Government now appear to be ruling out reform of the levy. Labour’s plan to increase its flexibility has been widely welcomed by employers. Do the Government recognise that the levy is not working, and that we need to give businesses and employers the flexibility they are demanding?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and for welcoming me and referring to the variety of jobs that I have had—in fact, I did 30 years’ worth of jobs before I came here, so I am used to a lot of change.

The apprenticeship levy was created to support the uptake and delivery of high-quality apprenticeships, and has been set at a level to fund this employer demand. We are making apprenticeships more flexible, providing new flexi-job and accelerated apprenticeships that are accessible to employers in all sectors—something I was working on when I was last in the Department. We have also improved the levy transfer system so that employers can make greater use of their levy funds. More than 215 employers, including Asda, HomeServe and BT Group, have pledged to transfer £14.62 million to support apprenticeships in businesses of all sizes.

West Dorset Constituency: Replacement of Temporary Classrooms

11. What recent steps her Department has taken to ensure that dilapidated temporary classrooms in the West Dorset constituency are being replaced. (902437)

The Department provides annual funding to improve the condition of school buildings, and has committed £1.8 billion this financial year, including £2.3 million for Dorset Council. The Government’s school rebuilding programme will transform buildings in 500 schools over the next decade, prioritising those in the poorest condition and those with safety issues.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind answer. He will remember that I asked him this question when he was last at the Dispatch Box, and indeed I have asked the Chair of the Select Committee the same question many a time. My former secondary school, the Gryphon School in Sherborne, has reached a point at which the temporary classrooms are so bad that there has been a request for severe needs funding to sort them out. These are temporary classrooms in which I was schooled 25 years ago, and we have been asking about this matter for a very long time. Will my right hon. Friend kindly prioritise our request, so that the school can bring about the vital improvements that are required? I would be delighted to hear when that might happen.

My hon. Friend has meticulously, passionately and repeatedly made the case to Government for investment in the replacement of temporary buildings at the Gryphon School. Bids for the school rebuilding programme are being assessed by officials, and we expect to confirm the selection of up to 300 schools during the current financial year—in fact, we hope to make an announcement by the end of December.

The issue of school buildings is as relevant in West Dorset as it is in the rest of the country, not least because we do not know how many buildings may pose a risk to life. Given that more than one in six schools in England are in need of urgent repair, will the Minister commit himself immediately to publishing the underlying data from the Condition of School Buildings Survey—or is he happy to sweep it under the carpet?

It was this Government who started the national surveys of the condition of the school estate, and we continually keep that data up to date. Well-maintained, safe school buildings are a priority for the Government, which is why we have allocated more than £13 billion since 2015 to keeping schools safe and operational. That includes £1.8 billion in this financial year.

STEM Subjects: Uptake

At every stage, from STEM in schools to STEM in skills, we are boosting careers advice and quality qualifications, through our boot camps, our free level-3 courses, our 350-plus apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications and, of course, our 21 institutes of technology.

I thank the Minister for his answer and welcome him to his place.

Great British Nuclear is soon to announce plans to get behind gigawatt-scale and small modular reactor nuclear power stations. This massive and exciting clean energy programme is bringing our country back as a global leader in nuclear. The scale of the programme will require tens of thousands of highly skilled people in communities across Wales and England. What is the Minister doing to ensure that we have a skilled workforce to deliver this programme at pace and to create career opportunities for our young people, such as those on Ynys Môn?

My hon. Friend is a human dynamo and a champion of new nuclear. I agree it is essential that we have a workforce to support the nuclear industry and the development of gigawatt-scale and small modular reactor nuclear power stations. She will know that our reforms across the skills system will ensure that we build the highly skilled workforce we need to meet our net zero targets by 2050. If she wants to see at first hand the commitment of this Government and the Department for Education to net zero, both the Schools Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), and I are recycled Ministers.

Early Years Teacher Training

The Department has significantly expanded the number of fully funded initial teacher training places in early years for the next academic year, and it is reviewing the level-3 qualification criterion for early years, both of which are part of our package of £180 million-worth of support.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 3MC.]

I recently visited Jelly Babies nursery at Longbridge Methodist church. [Interruption.] I did not eat any jelly babies on my visit, but I met the fantastic team who do so much to equip young children with new life skills. The Early Years Alliance is running its “We Are Educators” campaign, which I hope the Minister will support by recognising its work and the benefits for young children across the UK in general, and in Birmingham, Northfield in particular.

I know that my hon. Friend is a huge supporter of Jelly Babies, both the nursery and otherwise. The Government are supporting early years professionals with £180 million for qualifications and specific training, such as on dealing with challenging behaviour following the pandemic and on early communication.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 3MC.]

High-quality early years education is vital, and it is the best possible investment in our future—that includes both training and provision for all. Given that school budgets were protected in the autumn statement, where will the two years of real-terms funding cuts set for the Department for Education fall? Can the Minister confirm they will not fall on early years education?

As I said in answer to earlier questions, we put an extra £0.5 billion into the early years sector in the 2021 spending review to increase the hourly rate. We are also spending money on qualifications and training for teachers. This sector is very important to us, and we continue to consider all the ways we can support it.[Official Report, 6 December 2022, Vol. 724, c. 4MC.]

Undergraduate Degrees: Equal Standards

14. What plans her Department has to ensure that the grades of undergraduate degrees in similar subjects on all higher education courses are of an equal standard. (902441)

Our important sector-recognised standards are agreed by the UK Standing Committee for Quality Assessment to ensure that degrees equip students with the skills and knowledge required for them to succeed. Provider autonomy on what and how they teach is vital, and we must avoid driving standardisation over innovation. The Office for Students regulates to these agreed standards and investigates any concerns.

For every other serious qualification, any particular grade is worth the same whether a person studied in Truro or in Tadcaster. Even though universities accept the principle of moderating their standards, no employer or student thinks a 2:1 in English or chemistry is worth the same from every university. Does the Minister agree that equally valuable degrees would give a second chance to anyone who does not get into their first-choice university, would wipe out some of the snobbery that still infects parts of our higher-education system, and would level up life chances across the country?

Of course I will consider what my hon. Friend has said, but my priority for higher education was set out in a recent speech—it is skills, jobs and social justice, by which I mean ensuring that disadvantaged people can climb the higher education ladder of opportunity. He will know that the sector regional standards set out the terms of grading and content, but we should judge students on the outcomes: are they getting good skills and are they getting good jobs?

School Attendance

Attendance in all state-funded schools in the period 12 September to 21 October was 93.6%. Broken down by school type, attendance was at 94.9% in primary schools, 92.2% in state secondary schools and 88.1% in special schools. Our focus now is to help and support those pupils who face barriers to returning to school following the covid lockdown.

I thank the Minister for his answer. We know that following the pandemic there was an increase in persistently absent pupils, but there has also been a recent increase in the number of children being home educated. I know from meeting constituents in Rugby that that can often arise as a consequence of a breakdown between parents and the school, and it also disproportionately affects children with special educational needs. So what steps is the Department taking to encourage that group of pupils back into the classroom?

My hon. Friend is right; attendance at school is key to a child’s life chances, but the pandemic has affected some children, particularly some with special educational needs and disabilities. We are working with headteachers, teachers and children’s social care to help to overcome the barriers that those children face in returning to school, be they mental health issues, driven in part by the lockdown, or having fallen further behind in their studies. As I have said, we have committed £5 billion on catch-up programmes and one-to-one tutoring, focused on the children who have fallen furthest behind.

I am not sure I do welcome the Secretary of State to her new post, because she was such a good co-chair of the acquired brain injuries programme board in her previous job. The Minister will know very well, as will the Secretary of State, that one thing that sometimes affects attendance at school is kids who have had brain injuries. For the first few months, everybody understands in the school but perhaps a year later their executive function is not as well developed as it might be, they have problems with attendance, they end up being treated like a naughty child and they end up in the criminal justice system. Will the Secretary of State make sure that her Department plays as strong a part as she previously did in making sure that we have a national strategy on acquired brain injury, so that we do not let our kids down?

The hon. Gentleman is right: we need to make sure that every child, no matter what injuries they have suffered, and what cognitive problems or mental health problems they face, are able to thrive in our schools system, and we will do precisely what he suggests.

Topical Questions

I, too, pay tribute to my predecessor and the ministerial team. Last week’s national teaching awards celebrated the inspiring work our brilliant teachers do, and I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating this year’s winners and saying a massive thank you to incredible teachers such as Angela Williams, who won the lifetime achievement award, after 37 years of inspiring young minds in the Huddersfield and Kirklees area. During her career, she has helped more than 18,000 young people to achieve their dreams.

This Government recognise that a good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better. That is why we are investing an extra £2 billion in our schools next year and the year after, and that will be the highest real-time spending on schools in history. That is what was asked for by teachers, heads and unions. Given that, I very much hope that both sides of the House will be united in calling on the unions to end the threat of strike action as our children work hard to catch up on lost learning.

I welcome this ministerial team, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who did such a brilliant job as Chair of the Select Committee on Education. I look forward to working with them all and seeking to hold them to account. I have heard concerns from both sides of the House, including today from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), about the affordability of childcare, and I am keen that the Select Committee urgently looks into that matter. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to meet the Prime Minister’s objective of education being a silver bullet and helping more people into work, affordable childcare is essential?

Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend and I would like to take a moment to welcome him to his place. I congratulate him on becoming the Chair of the Education Committee. I am sure he will do a fantastic job and I look forward to working with him.

The early years are a vital part of every child’s education, helping to set them up for life. We are committed to improving the affordability, choice and accessibility of childcare, and have spent more than £20 billion over the past five years supporting families with their childcare costs.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her position and, I am sure she will agree, to the best job in Government.

Parents in key worker jobs—care workers and teaching assistants—are spending more than a quarter of their pay on childcare. Parents across our country are being forced to give up jobs that they love because of the cost of childcare. Yet, in the last two fiscal statements from the right hon. Lady’s Government, there has been no action to support families. Why not?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for welcoming me to my place. It is indeed the best job in Government.

We have taken a lot of action in this area. The last Labour Government had 12.5 hours of free childcare. That is now up to 30 hours. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements and more than £20 billion over the past five years supporting families with the cost of childcare. Thousands of parents are benefiting from Government childcare support, but we will also work to improve the cost, choice and affordability of childcare.

On schools, Labour is committed to ending the tax breaks that private schools enjoy and to investing in driving up standards for every child. Why should we continue to provide such

“egregious state support to the already wealthy”—

the children of plutocrats and oligarchs—

“so that they might buy advantage for their own children”?

Those are not my words, Mr Speaker, but those of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Does the Secretary of State agree with him?

I agree that the most important thing is to ensure that we focus on every child who goes to a state school getting a brilliant education. That is about 90% of all children in this country. The policy that the hon. Lady has been talking about and that Labour is developing is ill-thought through. Indeed, it could cost money and lead to disruption, as young people move from the private to the state sector. It is the politics of envy. We have fought for an extra £2 billion in the autumn statement, the highest per pupil spend in history, and I am sure that the hon. Lady—

Order. I remind Members that these are topicals and we want to get all the Back Benchers in. We do not want Front Benchers to take up all the time.

T2. The further education capital transformation fund is seeing colleges across the country replan their estates and modernise their facilities. In my constituency, Harrogate College has secured £16 million and is replanning its estate around delivering T-levels and the skills for growth sectors. Is the Minister ensuring that these FE construction projects are all focused on creating estates to deliver the skills needed in the growth sectors of the future and their local economies? (902452)

Yes, and I am delighted to return to the Department as Secretary of State to find that T-levels, which I launched as a Minister, are off to a great start. They are rigorous courses for young people. It is a fantastic achievement that, for the first cohorts of students, the pass rate was 92%. I urge all Members to visit their local college or institute of technology to see what the future of technical education looks like.

Reports that this Government could cause monumental damage to higher education by restricting international students to so-called elite universities have been described by former Universities Minister Lord Johnson as a “mindless crackdown”. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this Government will not implement such a mindless policy?

I can confirm that we have a world-class education system and we will attract the brightest students from around the world. That is good for our universities and delivers growth at home. We were proud to meet our international student ambition earlier this year to attract 600,000 international students per year by 2030. Today that is worth £29.5 billion and we are now focused on bringing in £35 billion from our education exports, which are the best in the world.[Official Report, 19 December 2022, Vol. 725, c. 2MC.]

T3. Like many parts of the country, Aylesbury has too many people who are economically inactive despite the overall unemployment rate being extremely low. We also have many job vacancies where we need people with new or different skills. How can my right hon. Friend’s Department ensure that courses in schools, university technical colleges and colleges equip young people with the right skills for today’s job market? (902454)

The first thing we need to do is invest, and we are investing an extra £3.8 billion over this Parliament in skills. We have introduced the T-levels and higher technical qualifications. We are strengthening careers advice and, of course, championing apprenticeships. I am pleased to say that apprenticeship starts have increased by 8.9% over the past year.

Schools such as King’s Oak primary in Bedford are experiencing significantly increased demand for support around special educational needs and disabilities and social, emotional and mental health needs, due to the cost of living crisis. While additional funding is a relief, the Government need to urgently make clear what the overall funding announcement will mean, to ensure that essential support can be sustained for the most vulnerable children. When will the details be announced?

We have set out the announcements on funding for SEND, which, as I said, has increased by 40% over the past three years for the high needs block funding. We have also set out spending on capital grants. We are setting out early next year our proposals for the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper to make sure that that money is spent well.

Trentham Academy has recently received a very good Ofsted rating, with a number of outstanding features, following significant improvement. But the school building is in a very serious condition, with rat infestations, a number of areas of safety concerns and more than one third of classrooms below 40 square metres. Will my right hon. Friend agree to support Trentham’s being in the school rebuilding programme?

Thanks to my hon. Friend, I am very aware of the serious issues affecting the condition of the Trentham Academy building, and as always he continues to make representations on behalf of the schools in his constituency. We plan to confirm further schools for the school rebuilding programme later this year.

Children growing up in poverty have poorer school outcomes and disadvantage, which often blights lives into adulthood. The autumn statement funding announcements, much vaunted today, will only restore real-terms per pupil funding to what it was in 2010, at a time when experts are urgently calling for a new child poverty strategy to tackle that widening gap. Given the Government’s so-called commitment to levelling up and social mobility, when will they announce that new strategy?

The hon. Lady should know that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the additional schools funding announced in the autumn statement— some £2 billion extra on top of the money already announced in the White Paper—and £3.5 billion in the spending review will fully cover expected school costs up to 2024. As she rightly says, it will take spending per pupil back to at least 2010 levels in real terms, which she will recall was the highest ever level of funding.

One pledge in our 2019 manifesto was the introduction of an arts premium. The British arts are central to our soft power projection across the globe and they start in the classroom. I will be teaching an acting class in Clacton very soon; in case the question is raised, can the Minister tell me that there will be a commitment to an arts premium or an arts-specific package?

I would love to see my hon. Friend’s acting class at some stage. The arts and music are an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum. That is why we have published, for example, a detailed model music curriculum based on best practice. Given the significant impact of covid-19 on children’s education, priorities were necessarily focused on education recovery in the last spending review, but we—

Order. I will just say once again, Minister, please stop taking advantage of these poor Back Benchers, who are desperate to get their questions in.

It is estimated that 4,000 Muslim young people every year choose, with a heavy heart, not to enter higher education because their faith bars them from paying interest on a student loan. David Cameron said nine years ago that he would fix that. Will the new ministerial team, whom I welcome, commit to introducing alternative student finance and give us some indication of when that will be?

I am strongly committed to introducing alternative student finance, something my Harlow constituents have also lobbied me about. The issue is that we want, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to introduce the lifelong learning entitlement, and we will introduce alternative student finance in conjunction with that.

In Chelmsford, we are very proud that Anglia Ruskin University has more students graduating in health and social care-related subjects than any other university in the country, but the university would not be able to provide such high-quality courses to students from the UK if it did not have the income from overseas students. Can my right hon. Friend categorically confirm that the UK will continue to welcome students from across the word to all our universities?

I have good news for my right hon. Friend: we were proud to meet our international target of 600,000 students by 2030; we have actually met that target already. It is currently worth £25.9 billion to the economy and it will be £35 billion by 2030.

In his autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he wanted to make the United Kingdom a science superpower, yet academic researchers and scientists are being hamstrung by the continued failure to reassociate the UK with the Horizon programme. What discussions are Ministers having with EU counterparts to re-engage the UK in the Horizon programme?

Our preference remains for an association to Horizon Europe. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have committed £20 billion to R&D by 2024-25, and we have just announced the Horizon Europe guarantee, a grant offer with a total value of £500 million issued by UK Research and Innovation.

T9. Good career guidance gives everyone—particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds—the ambition, self-belief and work ethic to take life chances whenever they appear and to level up our country. Will the Secretary of State consider making it impossible for a school to get an overall Ofsted inspection grade of good or better if its career guidance is not up to standard, in the same way as already happens if its safeguarding regime is not up to scratch? (902460)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: careers advice is central to getting young people on the skills ladder of opportunity. We have strengthened careers advice with the Baker clause. Ofsted is carrying out a review of careers training in schools and colleges. We are investing £30 million to support schools and colleges in careers, and setting up careers hubs in secondary schools and colleges.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their roles. May I start by congratulating the Government on their international education strategy, which has already been mentioned? The Secretary of State knows that international students contribute £30 billion a year to the UK economy—much of it in areas identified by the Government for levelling up—and that they are vital to the viability of our universities, enrich learning for UK students and strengthen our role in the world. Does she therefore share the concern of Members on both sides of the House about reports that consideration is being given to returning to the failed policy of restricting numbers, and will she raise that concern with the Home Secretary?

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I could not have put it better myself. International students add enormous value. As I mentioned in my previous answer and in the Westminster Hall debate we had a couple of weeks ago, we have met our target of 600,000 students a year early—before 2030—and that remains our target. By 2030, that will mean £35 billion-plus in exports.

I am concerned about the provision of music in state schools. A report by the British Phonographic Industry states that the provision has decreased dramatically in recent years. It estimates that

“30% of state schools have seen a decrease in curriculum time for music, or a reduction in the number of qualified music teachers.”

Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assure me that the Government recognise that, and update me on the steps that her Department is taking?

The 2021-22 academic year saw more than 86,000 hours of music teaching in secondary schools—the highest number since 2014. They were taught by more than 7,000 music teachers in secondary schools—the highest number since 2015. Schools should provide timetabled curriculum music of at least one hour a week. We have published an excellent model music curriculum that schools can lean on to help to deliver that.

Why will the Secretary of State not listen to her Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up and the Government’s own food adviser by expanding the eligibility for free school meals? Hungry children cannot learn and tend to behave badly, too.

I think we have already discussed this to some degree, but we have extended free school meal availability. Now, more than one third of children in school settings have access to a free nutritious meal. We are spending £1.9 billion on that facility.

I met a 12-year-old constituent a couple of weeks ago. He has been excluded from school and is now being home tutored, but he is struggling to see where his home tutoring will get him in his aspiration to become a mechanical engineer. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss getting some provision that will suit my constituent and people like him in my constituency?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I thoroughly enjoyed working with her on many things vocational and technical education when I was last in the Department. We very much need more mechanical engineers, so I encourage that young student and very much look forward to working with my hon. Friend.

We have been delivering defibrillators in schools up and down the country—it is a successful programme. I will write to the hon. Member with the precise figures that she is seeking.[Official Report, 29 November 2022, Vol. 723, c. 8MC.]

First, I congratulate all the staff and pupils of Ferryhill Station Primary School, where I was once a governor. Led by the head, Joanne Sones, it has now achieved an Ofsted rating of good.

I am sure the Minister would like all pupils everywhere to develop their sports skills and improve their mental health through sport. What is being done to focus the sports premium on schools in challenging areas such as Ferryhill? I would also encourage the Minister to come and—

Order. I am sorry, Mr Howell, but you are taking complete advantage. That is totally not fair to others. I call the Minister.

Improving school sport and PE is a key priority, and we recognise the important role that they play. We are considering arrangements for the primary PE and sports premium for the 2023-24 academic year. I pay tribute to the headteacher of Ferryhill Station Primary School for achieving “good” in the Ofsted inspection.

The Government funded 128 new special educational needs places at the Austen Academy in Basingstoke, which opened about a year ago, but a new, permanent academy trust is needed to operate the school. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the importance of making that appointment swiftly?

I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend. She is an incredible campaigner on these issues, which are also important to the Government.

King Edmund School, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), is currently closed while building materials containing asbestos are removed from the site. Will the ministerial team look into this situation with a view to getting kids safely back to school as quickly as possible?

Yes, I certainly will look into that. The school was initially closed as a precaution while we carried out enhanced testing. Testing is now complete, and the school buildings are safe, but asbestos remains on the site of a previously demolished building, so the school will remain closed while that is removed. However, we are doing everything possible to ensure that the school site reopens by 3 January.