Last Friday marked one year since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. All of us in the House should be proud of the support our country has provided to Ukrainians, both at home and abroad. I want to take the opportunity to thank all of our schools, colleges and universities for their steadfast support of children and young people fleeing this horrific conflict. To date, our schools have welcomed over 20,000 children from Ukraine, and in my own constituency we have welcomed over 245 children. By coincidence, one of them won my recent Christmas card competition—a very talented six-year-old called Anastasiia, whom I met along with her mother at St Joseph’s primary school in Chichester. She is thriving, which is testament to the incredible role our schools are playing to support children who have lived through something that none of us could imagine. Our nurseries, schools, colleges and universities have stood up for the people of Ukraine, and this Government and this country—and this House—will always stand with Ukraine.
I recently met students at Manchester University who are deeply concerned about the quality of student housing and, like all of us, are feeling the incredible strain of the Tory cost of living crisis. The Government’s failure to properly manage student maintenance loans will mean that students are £1,500 worse off in real terms. Can the Secretary of State tell me why the Government are punishing students like this?
Of course, we always want to support our students, and we have been increasing the maintenance loan. We have kept the fees flat as well, and we have increased the hardship fund. However, I know this is a concern, particularly in some big cities where housing costs have gone up and where perhaps there is a shortage of housing available for students as well. We do urge universities to act on this, because we have seen some crunch points where there is not enough housing, which can create pressure on students’ budgets.
Employers have developed 660 high-quality apprenticeships, including 150 in the engineering and manufacturing sector. Where employers identify the need for new and emerging skills, including in green jobs, they can work with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, which stands ready to work with employers to introduce new apprenticeships. I would encourage JCL Glass to speak to the institute about this.
I call the shadow Secretary of State.
May I begin by joining the right hon. Lady the Secretary of State in recognising the tremendous contribution of everyone right across education in welcoming Ukrainian refugees to our country, and reiterate our commitment, right across the House, to facing down Russian aggression?
Last week, the Leader of the Opposition set out that spreading opportunity through reform of our childcare and education systems will be a central mission of the next Labour Government. By contrast, the Prime Minister fails to identify education as a priority for his Government. Can the Secretary of State explain why?
I am delighted that the Leader of the Opposition has finally recognised education, because every other speech he has given did not mention it at all. The education of our children is vital, and standards and quality are also important. Since 2010, we have been making sure that the standards of our education for children give them the best opportunity to thrive in life. We have increased access to free childcare, and we have changed school standards, ensuring that all our kids are doing much better in much better schools. We have increased the number of good and outstanding schools, and increased skills training. We have introduced T-levels, we have introduced apprenticeships—we have done endless things, and every one of them has been done to increase quality.
I remind Front Benchers that many people want to get in at topical questions, which are meant to be short and punchy. Can we set the best example?
Will the Secretary of State explain to parents why after 13 years of Conservative Governments, her Department escalated the risk of a school building collapsing to “critical—very likely”?
Absolutely. We take the condition of schools very seriously, and we will be publishing data. We have collected a lot of data on schools—1.2 billion lines of data—and every time a school is identified as having a risk, it is acted on immediately.
I am so sorry to hear about the position of Keya. There are things we are doing, including increasing access to specialist school spaces and improving the offer in schools, and I will be setting out more detail within the next week.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
It is concerning to hear that the Home Secretary is considering changing visa rules significantly to reduce the period that international students can remain in the UK post-graduation. When the post-study work visa was previously withdrawn, huge damage was done to the higher education sector. Will the Minister assure the House that he will oppose such short-sighted and reactionary policies from the Home Secretary?
Immigration matters are for the Home Office, but I am proud that we have a target of 600,000 international students every year. We have exceeded that target, and they have ensured that the economic worth to our country is £25 billion.
Obviously I cannot comment on bids, but I thank my hon. Friend for meeting me to discuss his ongoing campaign to open a new sixth form in Bolsover. I share his passion for wanting every young person to have a wide range of opportunities to fulfil their potential, whether that is through T-levels, apprenticeships or higher technical qualifications. The next generation must have the skills to thrive.
Let me take the opportunity to thank all those working in this sector. I know they do incredible work, and it is difficult with the spike in inflation and the rising cost of energy. We always monitor the situation and sufficiency of places. We have spent £3.5 billion in each of the past three years, and we have provided support with energy bills. We are focused on halving inflation, but we recognise the challenges and will always do more. I am very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.
The new energy bills discount scheme will mean that any schools facing energy costs above the price threshold will receive a discount on their bills until 31 March 2024. In addition, the extra funding announced at the autumn statement, £2 billion, will help schools manage higher costs, including higher energy bills. The core schools budget will total £58.8 billion by 2024-25, the highest ever level in real terms per pupil.
Last month Carla, a parent in my constituency, suffered a serious head injury after a large piece of cladding flew off the school building, striking her on the head. Thankfully, Carla’s injuries are not life-threatening, but we need to ensure no other parent, staff member or child is put at risk in that way. According to leaked Government reports, school buildings in England are in such bad disrepair that they are a “risk to life”. Instead of waiting for the inevitable to happen, will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue?
I am very happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the issue. The ratings she refers to reflect increased numbers of structural issues identified through our continued monitoring and surveying of the schools estate, and the age of that estate. We can and do improve the life expectancy of school buildings by careful maintenance and upgrades over time. That is why we have a 10-year rebuilding programme, allocate significant capital funding each year, and provide extensive guidance on effective estate management. Whenever the Department is made aware of a dangerous building, immediate action is taken.
My hon. Friend is passionate about securing an excellent education for all his residents. The funding will help many children in mainstream education, but with dyslexia early identification and teacher training is key. I will be setting out more details in the response to the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision Green Paper.
Is the Secretary of State and her Department aware of the severe financial crisis engulfing the University of East Anglia, one so severe that the vice-chancellor has today resigned? This will have a dramatic impact on the regional economy. We could be looking at up to £45 million-worth of projected debt and 30% job losses. As such, will the Secretary of State or the Minister agree to meet me and a delegation from the University of East Anglia to discuss this most critical issue as soon as possible?
Yes, I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman sooner rather than later.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his commitment to reading and congratulate Skerne Park Academy on its Reading Lobster scheme, which I am keen to learn more about. Anything that promotes a love and habit of reading for pleasure can only be a good thing—and, as I say, the world’s your lobster.
According to the Department’s own figures, in 2022, 5,400 children’s social workers left the profession. That is 9% up on the previous year. What are Ministers doing to address this crisis in retention and recruitment in children’s social work?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that recruitment and retention is key. We set out plans in our reforms a couple of weeks ago, including looking at what we are doing on agency workers, An additional £3.2 billion was set out in the autumn statement to go into adult and children’s social care.
I was pleased when a new construction and engineering skills centre was built on Chartmoor Road in Leighton Buzzard, but it has failed to deliver. We need 1 million engineers and a quarter of a million construction workers. Will the Department ensure it keeps an eye on such projects so that they deliver for the people who need them?
We have had a huge increase—15.7%—in construction apprenticeship starts over the past year. On the college my hon. Friend refers to, we are working closely with Bedford College Group and Central Bedfordshire College to ensure that employers in Bedfordshire continue to benefit from the wide range of skills offers available.
Earlier this month, a serious racially aggravated assault took place outside a school in Surrey. Last week, I was informed of a further assault that took place at a school in Kent. Could the Secretary of State say what additional safeguards will be put in place to protect children, and how the senior leadership in schools will be held to account if they fail to protect students from racial discrimination?
The recent violent incident in the vicinity of Thomas Knyvett and the incident in Medway were absolutely abhorrent. Children’s safety and wellbeing is the Department’s highest priority, and schools and colleges have a duty to safeguard. Since the incident, the Department has been in regular contact with the academy trust and local authorities. A police investigation is ongoing in one of those cases, and the academy trust is working with the relevant authorities to undertake a thorough review into what happened.
My staff member Callum Dineen has been campaigning to improve mental health policies at universities following the tragic suicide of his close friend Theo Brennan-Hulme. I thank the Universities Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), for meeting Callum on this sensitive matter. Callum has been particularly focused on information sharing in a mental health crisis, which is a policy that Universities UK has recently endorsed and one that we feel would have helped Theo. Can the Minister inform the House of the steps that the Government are taking to ensure that those policies are being adopted in universities?
I had a very moving meeting with Callum. The story of the loss of his friend is absolutely tragic. There are serious mental health problems among some students across higher education and universities, and there have been some tragic episodes. We are investing £15 million to support students’ mental health and are strongly supporting the students’ mental health charter. I have asked Edward Peck, the vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent, to work on these issues.
Order. I say again to Ministers that Question Time should be short and punchy; it is not an opportunity for Ministers to roll on and read out pages of articles. Question Time is for Members to ask questions, so please help me to help them do so.
A headteacher in one of my schools said that there were material errors in the assessment and review of the infrastructure parts of their bids for funds from the school heating programme. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the bids are properly assessed?
Officials will give detailed feedback when a school fails to secure a bid through the many different bidding schemes for capital. We spend a huge amount of money on capital funding in our schools—about £13 billion since 2015. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, the school and officials to go through what went wrong with that bid.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the tragic incident that occurred in my constituency on the icy lake in Kingshurst, where four children tragically lost their lives. Will she agree to meet me to discuss my campaign to educate children on water safety, to avoid such tragedies in future?
Yes, I am committed to seeing what we can do to improve that, and I will definitely meet my hon. Friend.
I recently had a meeting with headteachers from across north Shropshire, who were clear that they had two top issues: recruitment and retention of staff, and the fact that rural schools receive less funding than their urban counterparts. Can the Secretary of State tell me what she is doing to help schools in rural areas with those two big problems?
On recruitment, we have increased the bursaries for this year from £130 million to £180 million, to provide £27,000 bursaries for the shortage subjects. In the national funding formula we have changed a number of elements to give more money to small schools in rural areas through the sparse funding component.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that families with first-hand experience of special educational needs—such as my constituents the Murphy family, who are in the public gallery—have the opportunity to have a say directly and influence SEN policy and provision, given decisions will affect them on a daily basis?
I welcome the Murphy family—hello! Co-production is incredibly important; that is how we have designed our response to the SEN paper. We will continue to consult at every opportunity.
We know from leaked Government documents that there is a £13 billion backlog in school repairs. Some cases are deemed to pose a risk to life. Is the Schools Minister aware of any school buildings that are at risk of collapse?
We have been conducting some of the biggest surveys of the fabric of school buildings in this country, which is why we are able to identify risks in our schools. Whenever we are informed about a risk to a school, we take immediate action, which can mean that certain buildings in a school are no longer used. We then send in surveyors, specialists and experts, and remedial action is put in place. We take these issues extremely seriously.
Is there a danger that the Government’s proposed legislation on freedom of speech in universities could be weakened or undermined by a requirement first to exhaust internal processes of appeal, which can be protracted?
We have sent the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill back to the Lords with the tort unamended. We will continue to look at everything we can do to make sure that the Bill is as strong as possible.
And now, a short question from Barry Sheerman. [Laughter.]
Does the Secretary of State agree that early years stimulation is vital? When will she do something about bringing back children’s centres and Sure Start?
I will do even better than that. We are introducing family hubs, which have a lot more utility and will be much more useful to those who need them.
Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Councillor Dave Evans and his team, led by Lisa Lyons, Vonni Gordon and Steven Orchard, for getting Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s children’s services from “inadequate” to “requires improvement”? That is an incredible turnaround, but obviously there is still a way to go.
I am very happy to congratulate Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the many other councils that have made that turnaround possible. That is very important, as we build on the work of Stable Homes, Built on Love.
Finally, I call the Chair of the Select Committee on Education.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the steps that she is taking to progress talks with the National Education Union to ensure that there is no more disruptive and damaging strike action?
I am quite surprised that this question did not come up earlier. On Tuesday of last week, the Government made a serious offer to the leaders of the National Education Union and the Royal College of Nursing to pause this week’s strikes, get around the table and talk about pay. This is an offer for talks about all areas in dispute, and we could not have been clearer. It is a serious offer; it was accepted by the Royal College of Nursing, and I urge the education unions to do the same. They have yet to formally respond, although statements have been circulating on Twitter and TV indicating that they are not prepared to pause their plans.