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Topical Questions

Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 April 2023

This morning I visited the London Screen Academy with the Prime Minister, who described his vision of all young people studying maths until the age of 18. We have set out the next step towards making that a reality and delivering a truly transformational change for the economy and society. As the Prime Minister made clear today, this is not about requiring every young person to study A-level maths but about ensuring that all young people have the skills that they need in order to succeed in a broad range of industries, as well as the life skills that will enable them to deal with the challenges that we all face, from securing the best deal at the supermarket to taking out credit or applying for a mortgage. We are assembling an expert advisory group to advise the Prime Minister and me on what a “best in class” modern maths offer to 16 to 18-year-olds looks like, and we will draw on that updated research, which will help us to learn from the race ahead of our international competitors.

I thank the Secretary of State for the record levels of capital spending that we are seeing in Fylde’s schools, most notably on the rebuilding of Lytham St Annes High School. However, the job is never done. Carr Hill High School in Kirkham, and other schools in my constituency, are seeking funds with which to modernise buildings and facilities. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the capital requirements of those schools?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the Government’s investment in school buildings. We recently announced the provision of £1.8 billion to fund improvements in the condition of schools in 2023-24, which includes about £15 million for Lancashire County Council, the body responsible for Carr Hill High School. As my hon. Friend said, we have transformed Lytham St Annes High School via the school rebuilding programme—and of course we will be happy to meet him.

As this is the first session of Education questions since the tragic death of Ruth Perry was made public, may I take the opportunity to extend my condolences and those of the entire Labour party to her family, her school community, and everyone who knew her?

Parents know that accountability is crucial for our schools. A year ago I said that as Ofsted turned 30, it was time for it to turn a corner. The former chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has now said that the Secretary of State must respond as a matter of urgency to what he describes as

“a groundswell of opinion building up”

that Ofsted is getting some things wrong. Does the Secretary of State still believe that there is no room for improvement in the inspection of schools?

I always think that there is room for improvement in absolutely everything. Ruth Perry’s death was a terrible tragedy, and my deepest sympathies are with her family, her friends, and the whole school community. A shocking event such as this will inevitably raise questions about inspection practice, which is understandable, but the safeguarding of pupils is also vital. I know that His Majesty's chief inspector of education, children’s services and skills has listened to school leaders who have expressed concern about the way in which safeguarding is inspected, and is reviewing the current approach as part of an ongoing process of evaluation and development, and I welcome that.

That is why, as we have said, Labour believes that safeguarding reviews should take place annually. Reducing schools’ performance to a one-word headline means high stakes for staff but a low level of information for parents. The current Ofsted chief inspector has described Labour’s plan to move from headline grades to a new system of school report cards as a “logical evolution”. Does the Secretary of State agree with the chief inspector?

I think the hon. Lady stood on a manifesto to abolish Ofsted in 2019, and now she has said she would remove the grading of schools. I too have a quotation from Sir Michael Wilshaw, who has said:

“This risks lowering standards in schools and is a distraction”.

I would go further, and say that this shows that Labour is happy to prioritise the asks of teaching unions over raising standards and safeguarding our children.

T2. Has the Department had words with the Ministry of Defence about the siting of 2,000 illegal migrants on an RAF base? I ask that question because not 200 yards from where those illegal migrants are to be housed are a nursery school and a primary school, set in a community of 1,000 people in the former married quarters. Should not Ofsted and the Department be taking an interest in this matter, in the context of child protection? (904521)

Of course we always take the interests of child protection very seriously. The Home Office has confirmed that the proposals for RAF Scampton are based on the accommodation of single adult males, so there will be no children there. We remain constantly in contact with both the Home Office and local councils as these proposals develop, and my focus is on promoting the wellbeing of all children, including those who are refugees.

High-quality teaching is only possible when teachers feel valued and supported. The Scottish Government have engaged in constructive dialogue with teaching unions and agreed a pay deal for teachers with a 12% salary increase this month. Rather than hurl insults at dedicated teachers, when will this Government come up with a realistic pay offer for their committed teaching staff?

I pay tribute to all our dedicated teachers. All of us across the House will agree that we cannot have a world-class education system without world-class teachers, and I am committed to making sure that we recruit and retain the best teachers. Obviously, we have had intensive talks with the unions and we offered them a one-off payment of £1,000 and an average of 4.5% for the period from September 2023 to 2024, when inflation is expected to be way below 2%. It is really disappointing that they have rejected that offer. It is also disappointing that they claim that it was not fully funded or affordable to schools, because we have confirmed that it is, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed that as well.

T3. The Department for Education has announced that it intends to subsidise the so-called Oak National Academy by £43 million in the coming years, much to the dismay of some of the educational software sector. Did the Department carry out a full assessment of the impact of that subsidy on competition and innovation in the sector before it made the decision, and if it did so, will it publish that study? (904522)

We believe that Oak can coexist with high-quality commercial publishers and that it will stimulate the market, helping teachers to become better informed consumers of resources. This country is one of the lowest users of commercial textbooks and our expectation is that Oak will increase the use of high-quality knowledge-rich textbooks in schools. The full business case for Oak, including the market impact, was published on on 1 November.

T4. The next Labour Government will recruit thousands of new teachers to ensure that every child has access to a broad curriculum that includes music, art, sports and drama. What is the Government’s plan to increase pupil access to these vital subjects? (904523)

Of course we want children to have the benefit of a high- quality curriculum including music and the arts. We have a high uptake of arts GCSEs in our system, we have published the model music curriculum and we have a national plan for music education as well as a cultural plan for music education that is about to start its work.

T5. Children across the country are returning to school today after the Easter break, but sadly, reports in Southend suggest that a fifth of school pupils are missing 10% of their lessons over the course of a year. Last December, a shocking 11.5% recorded unauthorised absences. I know that this is something that the Secretary of State takes really seriously, and given the life-transforming potential of education, could she update the House on her action plan to tackle unauthorised absences? (904524)

I thank my hon. Friend for her question; this is something that I take seriously, too. The Government remain committed to legislating to introduce statutory “children not in school” registers. On attendance, our priority is to reduce absence and to ensure consistent support for families, and we have published updated guidance setting out how we expect schools and local authorities to work together to improve attendance.

T8. The number of children living in poverty is increasing, and a third of the children in my city are now experiencing food poverty. With commitments from the Mayor of London and the Welsh Government on implementing universal free school meals to fight the scourge of hunger, will the Minister work with me and Liverpool City Council on piloting the roll-out of universal free school meals for all primary and secondary pupils in our city? This would be a £13 million investment in our children’s future and it would ensure that all children had the chance to fulfil their potential. (904527)

I am always happy to talk to the hon. Member about these issues. The Conservative Government since 2010 have extended free school meals to more groups of children than any other Government over the past century, and we have been able to do this because of our careful stewardship of the public finances and the economy. Some 1.9 million pupils are eligible for benefits-related free school meals, which is up from 1.7 million in 2021. That increase is due largely to the protections put in place on transfer to universal credit.

T6. Following the recent public consultation by the Orbis Education Trust, will the Government confirm that it is now their intention for the proposed new Hanwood Park free school in Kettering to be open to both boys and girls? (904525)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s interest in ensuring that the new free school best meets the needs of pupils in his constituency, and indeed for his general interest in high-quality education in his constituency. The consultation closed on 5 March, and we are currently considering the outcome ahead of reaching a decision on the school’s designation.

T9. The latest Government data, released last Thursday, reports a 4.1% drop in apprenticeship starts compared with the 2021-22 academic year. I have a great deal of respect for the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, but is he sure he was right to claim in an earlier answer that apprenticeship starts rose this year? (904528)

I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to explain that, over the past year— 2021-22—we increased apprenticeship starts by 8.6%, as I mentioned earlier.

T7. I was pleased to see a commitment in the SEND improvement plan to train up to 5,000 level 3-qualified special educational needs co-ordinators and teachers to ensure that children identified as having SEND can thrive in school. Does my hon. Friend agree that expanding this training and working to make it a mandatory part of all training for teachers and co-ordinators will improve the baseline assessments looking for SEND markers in those entering school. (904526)

Early identification of SEND is vital, which is why we are training 5,000 early-years SENCOs and reforming initial teacher training and the early-career framework for teachers in later stages of education.

T10. I recently surveyed all the schools in my Weaver Vale constituency, and over 50% of headteachers mentioned issues with the recruitment and retention of teaching and learning assistants, many of whom work with children with special educational needs. What are the Government doing to improve the pay and terms and conditions of teaching and learning assistants? (904529)

We are recruiting a record number of teachers, and we have a record number of teaching assistants in our schools. The Chancellor announced an extra £2 billion of school funding in the autumn statement, which means there has been a 15% increase in school funding in just two years.

Given the proven correlation between children having access to a good school library and their academic achievement and literacy, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that every primary school in Rother Valley and across the UK has a dedicated library or reading space?

We have spent £15 billion on capital since 2015, and it is up to schools how they allocate that capital. I share my hon. Friend’s view that every school should have a school library, or at least a space in which children can sit and read.

At the last Education questions, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education noted that he is very proud of the UK’s intake of 600,000 international students every year. International students, as we know, inject billions into our economy, bring huge value to our campuses and enrich our wider society. Can he therefore confirm on the record that the Government will not introduce an illogical policy designed to restrict foreign students?

What I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman is that our target was 600,000 international students per year, we currently have 680,000—or just under—international students per year and that 600,000 annual target remains. Obviously, visas are a matter for the Home Office.

I am a member of the all-party parliamentary group on music. Has the Minister considered replicating the success of the London BRIT School in Bradford?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, this morning she, the Prime Minister and I visited the London Screen Academy in north London and saw some of its excellent facilities for 16 to 19-year-olds studying the technical side of film making. I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) is so passionate about this bid. All applications for new free schools are currently being assessed, with successful bids being announced before the summer.

I pay tribute to my constituent Ruth Perry, the former headteacher of Caversham Primary School. She was a much-loved member of our local community. Will the Secretary of State consider the very serious local concerns when she looks into this matter, and will she agree to meet me, local headteachers and Ruth’s family to discuss this important issue?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and of course I would be happy to meet. This is a tragic case, and I send my heartfelt sympathies to Ruth Perry’s family and friends, and all of the school community in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.