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Topical Questions

Volume 726: debated on Monday 16 January 2023

Given this is my first Education questions of 2023, Mr Speaker, I would like to wish you, the House and everyone working in our education sector a happy new year, and to share some of what is to come from my Department.

Later this month, along with the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), I will be announcing our comprehensive plan to reform children’s social care. Soon after, we will return to bring forward our transformational improvement plans to support children with special educational needs.

I hope Members will join me in celebrating National Apprenticeship Week in February, and in April our schools will have something to celebrate as they receive their funding, which will include the £2 billion uplift announced at the autumn statement. This will see overall funding rise by 15% in just two years. We are investing more in our schools than ever before. By 2024-25, it will be £58.8 billion, the highest real-terms spending in history.

Special educational needs provision in school matters. So many parents contact me either because they cannot access such provision or because it is inadequate. One family with two neurodiverse children suffering from bullying and self-harm found that their school’s SEN policy did not even mention autism or neurodiversity. The Minister said this morning that the Government’s response to the review will be published imminently. Can she confirm that it will be published within the month and that the clear standards she mentioned will be enforced?

I take special educational needs very seriously, as does the Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing. It will be published very soon, so there is not long to wait. I am sure the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) will be delighted with the improvement plan, which we will publish very early in the new year.

T2. My constituent Hayley Turner is an inspirational campaigner for special educational needs, which she has improved enormously across the whole area. Evidence shows that early diagnosis and autism interventions are paramount to ensuring that children get the help they need. Hayley now uses her experience to help many others in the community. What are the Government doing to help neurodevelopmental services and to recruit educational psychologists? (903073)

Order. May I suggest that the hon. Gentleman knows this is topical questions? You cannot just go on and on. We have to get through the questions for everyone’s sake.

I commend Hayley for the work she does. Access to educational psychologists is of paramount importance so that people can get an early diagnosis. We are funding an additional 600 educational psychologists —200 in 2023 and 400 in 2024.

The Department for Education has raised the risk rating of school buildings collapsing to “critical/very likely”. In December, the schools Minister undertook to publish the data on these dangerous buildings by the end of the year, yet parents, staff and pupils are still in the dark. When will the Secretary of State finally publish this data and own up to the extent of her failure?

As I said earlier, our spending for capital funding in the schools system since 2015 has been £13 billion. We take the safety of schools very seriously. As the Secretary of State said regarding reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, we have written to all schools asking them to complete a questionnaire. As for publishing the data, the Department has already published summary findings from the condition data collection and we plan to publish more detailed data shortly. The condition data collections help us to understand the condition of schools, and we will publish as and when the data is ready.

Order. I call Bridget Phillipson to ask her second question. We are going to have to speed it up folks in order to get through.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. There was no answer there, even though the schools Minister said we would see this data last year.

Conservative Members have described their childcare policy as “crazy” and “unnecessarily expensive”, and said that they should “get on” with reforming it. I agree, which is why the next Labour Government will deliver a modern childcare system from the end of parental leave to the end of primary school. If even the Secretary of State’s own colleagues can see the case for change, why can’t she?

The hon. Lady will find that when Labour was in power for 13 years it did nothing on this issue and that it was the Conservative Government who expanded the offer for two, three and four-year-olds for parents. I would love to see the costings of her proposals because I think she is proposing yet more pie in the sky for parents. However, we take this issue seriously and we are committed to increasing the flexibility and affordability of childcare for parents.

T3.   I welcome the Secretary of State’s brief update just now on the special educational needs and disabilities Green Paper. It is right to get the correct support to families and young people as early as possible. However, the Green Paper was also right to talk about a truly inclusive education system. What progress will the 9,000 young people in Norfolk with education, health and care plans see in 2023? (903074)

I hope that the 9,000 children will see progress. Not only have we increased the overall funding for SEND by about 50% since 2019, but we are increasing the number of specialist school places. In the reforms, we will be setting out national standards, which I hope will also improve their educational experience.

As a former teacher, I support the right of our teachers to strike and will oppose this Government’s anti-strike legislation. Does the Secretary of State agree that constructive dialogue with our dedicated teachers is vital, rather than demonising them as “Bolsheviks” and “commies”, as one of her colleagues has disgracefully done?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I always believe in constructive dialogue. The very first meeting I took as we welcomed in the new year was with all four main teaching unions, and I will be meeting them again later this week.

T5. If we are levelling up, and trying to recruit and train more teachers in the north-east, why on earth has the outstanding Carmel College in my constituency been stripped of its accreditation to train teachers by a tick-box, form-filling exercise, destroying 20 years of hard work and leaving the north-east worse off? (903076)

I have visited Carmel College and I know what a good school it is. The initial teacher training reforms are a key part of the Government’s commitment to levelling up and ensuring that high-quality teachers are there for every child. Following an expert review, a robust accreditation process was undertaken to approve 179 providers, covering all regions, including the north-east. ITT provision is also expanding through the partnership. I know that my hon. Friend discussed this matter with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and I would be happy to meet him to discuss his concerns.

T4. Last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and I held a meeting with parents about SEND provision. Barnsley has one of the highest numbers of EHC plans in the country. What resources will the Government commit to ensure that provision is improved where it is needed most? (903075)

I can tell the hon. Lady that the high needs funding for Barnsley has increased by 12% year on year for 2023-24 and it will be more than £40 million in total. It will also receive £7 million for high needs provision capital from 2023-25 to increase the number of places.

T6. [R] I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am glad to hear that the children’s social care review response from the Government is going to come out shortly and that the Government have set up an implementation board to progress its findings. More than 80% of children in care are in the care of the independent sector, yet that implementation board has refused to allow any representative from that sector on to that board. Why? (903077)

I am committed to reform in children’s social care across all sectors. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), has been working hard in partnership with the national implementation board and the wider sector to design a plan for reform that will introduce meaningful change for children and families. It is quite a small group, and we have deliberately kept it small, but I will ask my hon. Friend to take a look and check that it is representative.

T10. The number of PE teachers has fallen by nearly 3,000 in the past 10 years, and the number of hours of PE taught by 36,000. With nearly a third of young people currently classed as inactive, what will the Government do to stop physical activity flatlining and make sure that young people can get the social, physical and mental benefits of PE in schools? (903081)

We have met the target for PE teacher recruitment for most of the past 10 years. We have the school sport and activity action plan in place, and there is a new plan being worked on at the moment. We take sport in schools very seriously; it is important for physical and mental health and for academic attainment.

T8. Parents of children with special educational needs feel that they are constantly battling to be heard and for their children to lead fulfilling lives. Some Stroud children are getting only a few hours of schooling each week, which is hugely disruptive for family and child. I am working with Gloucestershire County Council’s Phil Robinson to improve day-to-day experiences for Stroud families, but what is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that the local authorities and parents are key to implementing the new reforms? (903079)

I am really exercised about this issue. I speak to parents of children with SEND all the time, and I do think that they find the experience very adversarial. I will be setting out more details in the implementation strategy shortly, but this is something that I care very passionately about.

The current national school breakfast programme reaches only one quarter of the children living in areas with high levels of deprivation in England. Labour has set out our universal free breakfast offer, which will mean that no child will be too hungry to learn. When will the Government join the Labour party in that commitment?

We are spending £30 million between 2021 and 2024 on the school breakfast programme, which offers free breakfast to children in disadvantaged areas, supporting their attainment and readiness to learn. The focus of the breakfast provision has been to target the most disadvantaged areas of the country, and that has been our strategy.

T9. Does the Secretary of State think that it is acceptable that four out of five dyslexic children still leave school not identified, and that teachers still do not have to be trained to support dyslexic children specifically? It was a pleasure to meet the Minister last week, but will she ensure that, in future, early intervention is put in place for the identification of dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions? (903080)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his collaborative approach in the meeting that we had last week. Absolutely, early identification is key, and we have been looking very carefully at that and at teaching training in the implementation plan that I will be setting out shortly.

On new year’s eve, the care community lost a highly respected dear friend and true advocate. Ian Dickson spent his entire life making a difference to children in care and urging Governments to listen to them. The care review does not have all the answers, so will the Minister please implement the recommendations of the pioneering care experienced conference, in which Ian played a leading role?

I pay tribute to Ian’s work. I would love to look at that in more detail and speak to the hon. Lady further about what we can take forward.

We all visit many schools, and the latest for me was Chilton Academy where I talked about its Go Well support. We all talk about funding, but the biggest thing about funding is not just the amount, but its visibility and extended timelines. Can the Minister please explain what can be done to make sure that the schools know earlier and for longer what money they will have available?

I understand and agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of certainty over funding. The dedicated school grant allocations for 2023-24 were published in December 2022, including indicative allocations for the mainstream schools’ additional grant, which will distribute the additional £2 billion of funding that was announced in the autumn statement.

As we have heard, the additional £15 million hardship funding for students announced last week amounts to less than £10 per head—significantly less, according to my sums—while the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that students are £1,500 a year worse off. Today, the all-party parliamentary group for students is launching an inquiry into the impact of the cost of living crisis on students, inviting submissions from students, their unions and institutions across the UK. Will the Minister agree to meet us to consider the evidence we receive?

Of course I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the £276 million, along with other measures the Government have introduced, including the energy rebate and other support that we try to give students who are facing cost of living challenges.

In light of the Government’s new emphasis on numeracy in schools, may I make a plea that the Government do not forget about literacy in schools and in particular how we can continue to raise standards? My initiative “Get Witham Reading” has been running for 10 years now, and I urge colleagues on the Front Bench to come to Witham to see the scheme in action this year and see how it has raised standards in education.

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend, and I share her passion, so I would be delighted to come and see the scheme in place in her constituency. We take reading very seriously; we have risen from joint 10th to joint eighth in the progress in international reading literacy study league tables, and in those surveys it is the least able children who are improving fastest.

James Kerfoot, the headteacher of Rudheath Senior Academy, which serves my constituents, has introduced free school meals for all pupils. Why does the Minister not do the same?

As I said, we are spending £1.6 billion each year on free school meals, which is targeted at the most disadvantaged children, but schools are able to use their pupil premium funding, which is worth £2.5 billion a year to schools, if they wish to extend the coverage of free school meals to more pupils. As I said earlier, we extended free school meals to all pupils in infant schools in an early decision of the Conservative-led coalition Government.[Official Report, 23 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 8MC.]

Children’s services in Norfolk have been judged as requiring improvement all the way back to 2008, so will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating executive director Sara Tough and all her staff, as well as Councillor John Fisher, on last week’s assessment that Norfolk’s children’s services are now good and well on their way to outstanding?

I do indeed congratulate that team; that is quite a hard thing to do and it is brilliant that they have been able to get that recommendation.

The Government take the safety of schools very seriously, as the Minister said in response to an earlier question, so will Ministers reconsider mandating the fitting of sprinklers in new-build schools to minimise the risk posed by fires to buildings, equipment, pupils’ school work and people?

The hon. Lady will know that there is revised guidance; the new buildings bulletin has been issued after wide consultation and makes some changes to requirements for when sprinklers are to be installed in schools, particularly when the risk factor of the students in the school is high—for example, for children with special educational needs or residential schools.

When I met Jewish students studying in universities in my constituency, I was appalled to learn of the antisemitism they have to suffer, often on a daily basis. That was made worse by the recent report into the National Union of Students’ handling and challenging of antisemitism. In the month when we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I would be interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of that NUS report.

I have been shocked and sobered by reading that report that the NUS was in essence a hostile place for Jewish students. That is not acceptable. The National Union of Students, the main body for students, should be a place that is not just safe but welcoming for Jewish students. The proof of the pudding with this report will be in the eating; I expect to see the changes and the recommendations implemented in full, and once that has occurred I will re-engage with the National Union of Students.