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Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 April 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

School Buildings: Information on Condition and Safety

1. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the information her Department makes available on the condition and safety of school buildings. (904495)

Well maintained, safe school buildings are essential, and it is the responsibility of academy trusts and local authorities to maintain school buildings and keep them safe. The Government carried out a review of them back in 2014; since then, we have completed one of the largest reviews in the UK public sector, in which we reviewed every state school in the country, and we are undertaking a further survey. We have allocated over £15 billion since 2015 to improving the condition of school buildings. That includes £1.8 billion committed for the financial year 2023-24. Our school rebuilding programme will transform buildings at 500 schools, prioritising those in poor condition with potential safety issues.

I think the Secretary of State is presenting a rather rosy picture, because the Government have admitted that it is now very likely that some school buildings will collapse, owing to a decade of inadequate funding and serious structural issues. She did not say that her Department has failed to publish data on where those buildings are, and what repairs are needed. May I tell her about a school in Kingston upon Hull North, on Hall Road? It has been raising the alarm about its dilapidated state for many years, but so far under the school rebuilding programme it has only been selected to attend a seminar and fill in a questionnaire. Will she tell me when that school in my constituency will be rebuilt, as is absolutely necessary?

I assure the House that there are no open areas in school buildings where we know of any immediate safety risk. If the Department is made aware of any dangerous building, immediate action is taken to ensure safety and remediate the situation. To address the challenges in the school estate, we first needed a true understanding of its condition. That is why it is so disappointing that over the 13 years of the last Labour Government, including when the right hon. Member served as Minister with responsibility for schools, there was not a single comprehensive review of the condition of the school estate, so we had a lot of work to do, but we now have full data.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools for the efforts made when asbestos was discovered in the King Edmund School. I appreciate the work that the Secretary of State is doing. Is she particularly concerned about the impact of aerated concrete on schools, and on children’s education when remedial works are done?

The Department is gathering information from the responsible bodies in all schools, further education colleges and local authority maintained nurseries. We are asking them to complete a questionnaire on the presence of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete on their premises. That questionnaire covers nearly 22,000 schools, 230 further education settings and 371 nurseries. It is the responsibility of academy trusts and local authorities to maintain those settings and keep them safe, but we want settings to submit a response to the RAAC questionnaire, and I urge all those that have not yet done that to do so, so that we can take action.

One of the first decisions that the Government made on coming to power was to cancel seven school rebuilding programmes in my constituency. Since then, we have seen greater cuts to local government spending, so the buildings have continued to disintegrate. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that some of the resources that she has mentioned will go to schools in Redbridge and Waltham Forest, to stop their further disintegration?

Since 2015, we have allocated over £15 billion to maintaining and improving the condition of the school estate. Our school rebuilding programme will transform buildings at 500 schools; 400 of those have already been announced, including 239 in December, but there are more slots to allocate. We will prioritise buildings in poor condition and those with potential safety issues. The Minister for Schools is always happy to meet to discuss specific schools.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the school rebuilding programme, which is welcomed by Government Members —it is an innovation that we appreciate—will transform the educational environment of hundreds of thousands of children, particularly those in schools in the poorest condition?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. I have been to many schools that are not only rebuilding the schools but transforming their facilities, so that children have excellent conditions in which to get the most fantastic education.

Safeguarding Children in Schools

The safety and wellbeing of our children is one of our highest priorities. Parents place their trust in teachers and schools and, by extension, in my Department. Those responsibilities are taken extremely seriously, and I pay tribute to all teachers for putting our children’s safety first.

We provide schools and teachers with information and guidance to enable strong safeguarding in schools and colleges. Our “Keeping children safe in education” guidance and our searching, screening and confiscation guidance, updated in the light of recent events involving Child Q, support schools to create a safe environment for children.

The case of Child Q was shocking, but the recent report by the Children’s Commissioner found that 14 strip searches took place either in schools or in a police vehicle, and states that that number could be higher because no location was recorded in 45% of cases. That report recommends changes to Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 codes A and C to strengthen the statutory safeguards for children, including excluding schools as an appropriate location for strip searches. Does the Secretary of State agree that that should be implemented as a matter of urgency, and will she press the Home Secretary to get on and implement all the report’s recommendations in full?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I want to be clear that any use of strip search should be carried out in accordance with the law, following safeguarding codes of practice, and with full regard for the dignity and welfare of the individual being searched.

As the hon. Lady has said, the Children’s Commissioner recommended that schools be specifically excluded as an appropriate place to strip search children. That is a recommendation that the Home Office will need to consider, and my Department would need to update any schools guidance accordingly. The Home Office does not hold figures on the number of pupils strip searched by police officers in primary or secondary schools each year, or on how many of those searches were conducted without an appropriate adult present, but it has now introduced a data collection on strip searches to the annual data requirement. That data collection includes details on the age, sex and ethnicity of the persons strip searched by police in England and Wales.

I welcome that there will be a review of the teaching of relationships and sex education—that review cannot come quickly enough. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that the scope of the review will include extracurricular activities and clubs and assemblies, as well as timetabled RSE lessons? I have had quite serious parental concern expressed about both.

As my hon. Friend rightly says, we are undertaking a review of relationships, sex and health education guidance in our schools, and I have asked the Department to look at wider settings as part of that.

Mental Health Training in Schools

Schools promote and support the mental health and wellbeing of their pupils to help them thrive and reach their potential. My Department is helping schools to develop effective approaches to mental health by offering senior mental health lead training. More than half of all state schools and colleges have received that training grant since September 2021. To give children more access to support, we are increasing the number of mental health support teams from 287 in 2022 to 400 in 2023, and the number of teams will grow to 500 in 2024. I recently visited St Wilfrid’s Catholic School in Crawley, where I saw the fantastic work done by that school and West Sussex’s mental health support team to offer one-to-one support and group sessions for pupils who are struggling to prepare for their next steps.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her comprehensive answer. Like a few other colleagues, I recently visited Baton of Hope UK, whose work on suicide awareness and prevention is second to none—it is admirable. Will she commit to meeting Baton of Hope to further its efforts to improve children’s access to mental health support?

Many of us and our families have been struck by the tragic loss of loved ones to suicide, and we must work together to support young people’s mental health and to prevent suicide. A new suicide prevention strategy will be published this year, and we are working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to drive progress on reducing youth suicides and helping children to access the support they need.

Baton of Hope is a brilliant organisation that does excellent work in raising awareness and on prevention. I met Mike McCarthy, who is the co-founder of Baton of Hope, when I was the Minister for care and mental health, and I am sure that my successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), would welcome its input to this important work.

An investigation by The House magazine found that a quarter of a million children struggling with their mental health who were referred to the NHS were either denied treatment or redirected elsewhere due to burgeoning caseloads. I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that schools play a vital preventive role in building children’s resilience and ensuring that the NHS is not overwhelmed, yet the mental health support teams in schools programme is due to end abruptly in 2024. Will the she assure the House that that programme will continue and reach every school in the country?

As the hon. Lady rightly says, the programme is continuing up to 2024. We are evaluating its success, and the early signs are that it is vital in helping more children access lower-level mental health support, such as group and one-to-one sessions. We will certainly be putting the case forward for continuing the roll-out of this successful programme.

Children’s Social Care Implementation Strategy

4. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the children’s social care implementation strategy on (a) the social care sector and (b) children in care. (904498)

Our reforms will deliver transformational change in children’s social care. The strategy we set out, “Children’s social care: stable homes, built on love”, will put in £200 million of additional investment to lay the foundations for wider reform. Our approach balances the need to scale complex intervention safely and effectively with evidence at its heart and the need to address urgent issues immediately.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but here is the reality: 34 children that we know of aged 16 and over in the state’s care have died in unregulated accommodation. The last time I asked the Secretary of State about this, she said that regulations would be introduced, yet those regulations shamefully legitimise unregulated accommodation, placing more of these children in tents and caravan sites, alone and without any care or supervision at all. What on earth is she playing at?

We have taken steps forward on regulating accommodation. We are working closely with the sector. We are going further than we ever have before to make sure that we can have not only quality accommodation for some of our most vulnerable children, but quality of care too. I know that the hon. Lady cares deeply about this issue, and I would be delighted to meet her to discuss it further.

Disadvantage Gap in Schools

Closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils has been the guiding star leading all our education reforms since 2010. Central to that has been ensuring that children are taught to read in the first years of primary school using systematic phonics, the method that all the evidence says is the most effective way to teach children to read. In PIRLS, the progress in international reading literacy study of the reading ability of nine-year-olds, England rose from joint 10th to joint eighth in 2016, which is largely attributable to improvements in reading by the least able children.

The Minister paints a rosy picture, but the disadvantage gap continues to be wider than it was in 2019 and the Government have limited the uptake of education recovery programmes, such as the national tutoring programme, and failed to ensure that tutoring was always directed towards the most disadvantaged pupils. Worse still, they have provided less than a third of the funding that their own education recovery commissioner recommended. Will the Minister commit today to increasing funding to meet these urgent needs?

During the eight years prior to the pandemic, the disadvantage gap closed by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools by 2019. The hon. Lady is right that the gap widened over the course of the pandemic, which is why we introduced the national tutoring programme, providing intensive one-to-one and small group tuition to those who have fallen behind. It is why altogether we are spending £5 billion on an ambitious multi-year education recovery plan, why the recovery premium is targeted towards the most disadvantaged and why the pupil premium, introduced by the Conservative-led Government in 2010, is being increased from £2.6 billion to £2.9 billion this year.

I congratulate the Minister on having the bravery when he first entered the Department back in 2010 to narrow the disadvantage gap and stand up to the unions when it came to some big reforms in our education sector. It is just a shame that the Labour party continues to stay silent while the unions hold children’s futures to ransom over the fact that they want teachers to continue striking, no matter the disruption it will cause to children’s learning and, potentially, their ability to pass their exams in the summer. What work is being done to ensure that students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not have to suffer because union baron bosses such as Bolshevik Bousted and Commie Courtney seem to want to destroy the lives of the young people they serve?

Well, my hon. Friend makes an understated case for making sure that young people are in school, and it is disappointing that pay negotiations are being conducted by holding strikes. We have reissued guidance to schools to make sure that, where schools have to restrict attendance, they prioritise the most vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and, of course, children in exam years.

The Government’s failure to invest in our schools and children has been laid bare, with disadvantaged pupils now further behind their peers than at any point in the last 10 years. Given that the Minister has been in post for the vast majority of that period, what does he put this failure down to?

The hon. Gentleman obviously did not hear the answer to the original question. We had actually closed the attainment gap prior to the pandemic by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools. Of course, the gap did widen during the pandemic, which is why we are allocating £5 billion to help children catch up. The hon. Gentleman really ought to condemn the strikes that have been happening in our schools, because the worst thing we can do to help children catch up is to close a school.

It has been revealed by openDemocracy that private schools received more than £157 million in Government loans during the pandemic. Just one of those loans has cost taxpayers over £350,000 in fees and interest, and another was received by a school that recorded a financial surplus of £13 million in the year it used the loan. Will the Minister explain why such funds were not available to state schools to help tackle the disadvantage gap?

Actually, we are spending £5 billion helping schools to tackle the disadvantage gap and help children catch up. We funded schools fully throughout the covid pandemic, and we provided over £400 billion of support to the UK economy and to families up and down the country during the covid crisis.

Lifelong Learning

The lifelong loan entitlement will ensure everyone has access to opportunities to upskill and reskill to progress in their careers. We have led a huge raft of reforms to the skills system since 2016 to deliver on this ambition, building on the reviews led by Professor Alison Wolf, Lord Sainsbury, Sir Philip Augar and others. Over this time, we have worked with over 5,000 employers to deliver apprenticeships, backed by the landmark £2.7 billion apprenticeship levy. The £3.8 billion we are investing over this Parliament will support more people to benefit from apprenticeships, skills bootcamps, T-levels, free courses for jobs and new returnerships, and will deliver our flagship institutes of technology.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comprehensive reply. It is welcome that the Government, in their response to the lifelong loan entitlement consultation, have acknowledged the need for maintenance support. However, so that lifelong loans are available to the many and not to the few, can my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a clear pathway for those who do not yet have level 3 qualifications, such as A-levels, to participate in this vital initiative and ensure that it is the game changer that will unleash the skills revolution?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I agree with him that there should be a clear pathway. That is why level 3 courses are fully funded for a range of individuals through funding streams such as free courses for jobs, the adult education budget and advanced learner loans. The adult education budget allows eligible adult learners aged 19 to 23 undertaking their first full level 3 course to be fully funded, and free courses for jobs gives eligible adults the chance to access high-value level 3 courses—423 of them—for free. The Government aim to support learners building up or stacking up LLE-funded modules on pathways to full qualifications across their working lives.

Building on that answer and on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), will my right hon. Friend tell the House what her ambitions are for lifelong loan entitlements and when they might come into force, so that older potential learners in Basildon and Thurrock can start to reskill for the 21st century?

The lifelong loan entitlement will radically transform opportunities for people, including the nurse I met outside my local hospital in Chichester, who retrained having worked for years as a domiciliary. Thousands of people like me who look for a change of career later in life have used the apprenticeship system, but now all providers registered with the Office for Students will have the opportunity to deliver LLE-funded courses, which will initially focus on higher technical qualifications, helping to address skills gaps to support learners into jobs where employers have need. The LLE will be introduced from academic year 2025-26.

Learning opportunities should be there for everyone everywhere, yet since 2010 almost 4 million fewer adults have taken part in learning, thus holding back their learning and economic potential and our country’s productivity. It has been a decade of decline, which we cannot afford to continue, so will the Secretary of State back Labour’s plans for a better skills system, working for people and businesses across the country, starting with the urgent reform of the apprenticeship levy, which she will have heard criticisms of, just as we have?

The hon. Lady may have some different figures, because 5.4 million people alone have been trained as apprentices and about half of them have been adults. But we have done a lot to reform our skills system, working with 5,000 employers to make sure that business and education meet. We are very happy with the reforms we are making and think they will offer a lot more opportunity for lifelong learning to support adults with the skills they need.

For many refugees and asylum seekers, access to lifelong learning is all the more important because their learning may have been disrupted. On Friday, my constituent Grace Franklin, a volunteer ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—teacher, and Maryhill Integration Network both raised with me access to ESOL classes for asylum seekers and refugees, which is often hampered by people staying in temporary hotel accommodation. What commitments do the UK Government have to invest further in ESOL in England, so that Scotland can benefit from the Barnett consequentials?

We have the adult education budget scheme, which is often run by local authorities and devolved in some cases to the mayors as well, and that includes ESOL provision.

The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill could be transformational to post-16 education. However, in annexe 2 to the recent 2023-24 ministerial guidance letter to the OFS, the Secretary of State slashed funding for LLE preparation by £5 million. These are clearly complex and expensive changes for the sector to address, so how does she expect the sector to deliver these reforms without the funds to do it?

The LLE will be available for four full years of study, for higher technical and degree level and, for the first time, for modules of high-value courses regardless of whether they are provided in colleges or universities. Of course this is a big change and we are engaging with a wide range of stakeholders to gather the input to inform policy development, to build further awareness and to inform future budget development.

Early Years Support for Families

In the past five years, we have spent more than £20 billion supporting families with the cost of childcare. Since 2010, we have introduced the offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds and doubled the entitlements for working parents of three to four-year-olds, and we are now going further and have announced 30 hours of free childcare for children of working parents from nine months.

I recently visited the outstanding Laurels Childcare Company in Durham to listen to its concerns about childcare funding. Such providers are crying out for clarity on the Government’s plan. More free hours must not mean more underfunded hours. The Government admitted in 2020 that it costs £7.49 to deliver an hour of free childcare for a three-year-old, yet in September providers will be paid just £5.50 for those hours. Can the Minister tell me why?

We conducted a survey of 10,000 different providers, and that is what we have used to set out the funding rates. In some of those areas, for example, for two-year-olds, the rate is going up by 30% because we know that is a much higher cost for providers, but overall we have announced the single biggest investment ever in childcare and will be spending £8 billion on this in four years’ time.

The commitment in the Budget to invest in childcare in the early years was extremely welcome and I congratulate my hon. Friend on her part in securing it. Can she update the House on the feedback she is getting from the sector on the proposed funding rates and whether they will allow it to meet the inflationary pressures it is facing, including soaring business rates bills? Will she continue to address with the Treasury some of the unavoidable costs, such as the increase in the national living wage and the business rates increases, faced by the sector?

As I said, we used feedback from the sector—we surveyed about 10,000 different providers—to come up with the rates, and as we progress we continue to talk and work closely with it. There has been a lot of positivity about the rates we set out, in particular for one and two-year-olds, and the £200 million we are putting in this year and the £288 million we will be putting in next year.

One thing I am most concerned about in terms of educational attainment in early years and primary is food insecurity, which is rising in all our constituencies. Much of this is devolved, of course, but I do not want to see hungry kids anywhere and hungry kids cannot learn. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that seven out of 10 children in families on universal credit are not entitled to free school meals. Do Ministers not agree that they should be?

We have increased the number of children on free school meals to the highest ever level. We also have programmes such as the holiday activities and food programme—one of the things I visited over the recess—which is providing nutritious meals alongside activities. We are doing a lot to support parents with the cost of living, too.

Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to the work done by the private sector, and in particular to Busy Bees, which was founded in Lichfield 40 years ago this year and operates over 400 nurseries in the United Kingdom, the Republic of Ireland, Europe and the United States of America, and wish it well for the next 40 years?

My hon. Friend is testament to the fact that good things come out of Lichfield. I have met Busy Bees a couple of times. It does some really impressive things, in particular on retention of staff and training programmes. I wish it well in the years to come.

Degree Apprenticeships

My hon. Friend will know that “degree apprenticeships” are my two favourite words in the English language. My hon. Friend’s constituency of Wantage has had 330 extra degree-level apprentices since 2018. We have had over 180,000 starts overall since 2014 and we are investing an additional—an additional —£40 million over the next two years to support degree apprenticeships.

My right hon. Friend is a great supporter of degree apprenticeships, as am I, but he will know they do not always function as the route for social mobility that they should. We have seen a much higher proportion of the most affluent young people obtain them than we have the poorest young people, so what is he doing to ensure disadvantaged students get their fair share of degree apprenticeships?

We are transforming careers advice on apprenticeships in our schools and targeting that advice towards disadvantaged students. The Office for Students has asked higher education to increase the proportion of level 4, 5 and degree apprenticeships as part of reforms to wider access. We also increased the care leavers bursary from £1,000 to £3,000, and are providing £1,000 to employers and training providers when they recruit young people. Our determination is to get more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds doing degree apprenticeships and apprenticeships across the board.

During a recent visit to the excellent South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, the Minister and I were quite properly schooled by two smart apprentices, who told us quite bluntly what they thought of the Government communications campaign to encourage apprenticeships and raise awareness of them. They were not hugely impressed and had some ideas themselves. After meeting the Stroud apprentices, will my right hon. Friend consider creating a new national campaign to raise awareness of this really important use of learning?

I had a wonderful visit with my hon. Friend to the excellent South Gloucestershire and Stroud College. She is absolutely right that we need to communicate the good work of apprenticeships and we are doing exactly that. We have a national campaign, Skills for Life, which is all over the national media. As I mentioned in my previous answer, we are also transforming careers advice on apprenticeships to ensure that students and learners have interactions with apprentice organisations to encourage them to do apprenticeships when they leave school. We have also worked with UCAS to ensure that apprenticeships are treated at the same level as when people apply for degrees.

The number of apprenticeship starts has dropped significantly this year, and around £600 million of the levy was returned to the Treasury in the last year. Given the skills shortages affecting our economy, would it not make sense to let businesses in my constituency and elsewhere utilise at least some of that returned money for relevant non-apprenticeship training designed to alleviate the skills gap?

The hon. Gentleman cares passionately about these things. Apprenticeship starts increased by 8.6% in the past year. I am happy to send him the figures. For higher apprentices, that increased by 11%. The £600 million that he talked about—or £750 million, as quoted by the newspapers over the weekend—is money from the overall United Kingdom apprenticeship levy that was sent to the devolved authorities for them to spend on skills as they see fit.

I thank the Minister for that response. It is important that everyone has the opportunity to do degree apprenticeships, working in partnership with businesses and companies to ensure that the opportunity works on the floor. It is important that ladies have the same opportunities as men. How is the Minister ensuring that ladies have those opportunities as well?

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right that we want to encourage more women to do apprenticeships, especially STEM apprenticeships. As I mentioned, we are doing a lot of work on careers. The apprenticeship and skills network is going around schools promoting apprenticeships and targeting disadvantaged students and areas where we need more female apprentices, including in STEM.

Apprenticeships: People Over 16

9. What steps her Department is taking to encourage people over the age of 16 to take up apprenticeships. (904504)

My right hon. Friend and I are passionate about apprenticeships. We are promoting this excellent route into a career through our apprenticeship support and knowledge programme in schools and our career starter apprenticeships campaign. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education mentioned, we are working with UCAS so that people can search and apply for apprenticeships alongside degrees, creating a one-stop shop for young people.

The Secretary of State is a fantastic advocate for apprenticeships. Importantly, she recognises the need to open up training and apprenticeship opportunities for school leavers. We can never forget them. Will she join me in thanking the many local businesses in Witham that supported my recent careers fair held in a local school? On top of that, will she look at how to make the apprenticeship levy much more agile and flexible so that more school leavers participate in the scheme, and look at devolving more skills funding to Essex?

I share my right hon. Friend’s appreciation of the wonderful employers in Essex that are building the next generation—such as Stansted airport, Rose Builders and Simarco—as someone who left school at 16 and started on that route. I know through my right hon. Friend’s work, more than 8,000 apprentices have started in Witham since 2010, many in engineering, automotive and aerospace.

More than 99% of the apprenticeships budget was spent last year, which is a fantastic demonstration of the value that apprentices bring to businesses. We will continue to ringfence the levy to support that demand. Essex Chambers of Commerce are working with employers to develop a local skills improvement plan. We look forward to working more with them and local employers on their needs.

I never thought I would hear myself say this, but I totally agree with the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), who rightly urges the Minister to support Labour’s policy on greater flexibility for apprenticeships. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development described the Government’s approach to apprenticeships as having “failed by every measure”. Alongside starts having fallen by a third, the Government’s own data shows that 47% of apprentices do not complete their apprenticeships. Will the Secretary of State join me, the Labour party and the right hon. Member for Witham in supporting the wide range of businesses and employers that support Labour’s plans for reform of the apprenticeship levy?

I understand that many employers have asked for that, but it is as ill-thought-through and ill-designed as Labour policies such as the tax on private schools and non-dom status. We are already spending 99.6% of the levy, so Labour’s policy would mean that we would have to take some apprentices away from SMEs to be able to create that levy.

High-quality Apprenticeships: Access

We are improving quality and supporting more apprentices to successfully complete their programmes. We have moved from frameworks to standards, we have asked all apprenticeship providers to reregister on the register of apprenticeship training providers, Ofsted will inspect all providers by 2025 and we have provided £7.5 million for a provider workforce development programme.

A constituent was in touch with me recently as his daughter has started a level 3 veterinary nursing qualification. There are no places to take that qualification in north Wales, so she registered with a training provider just across the border, in Chester. As she works for a veterinary practice in Colwyn Bay and spends more than 50% of her practical learning time in Wales, she is not eligible for English apprenticeship funding, yet the Welsh Government say that, because the training provider is based in England, she is not eligible for Welsh apprenticeship funding either. Can my right hon. Friend tell me why it is so difficult for the UK and Welsh Governments to work together on such things, so that people such as my constituent do not fall through the cracks?

My hon. Friend has been a battler for his constituent and has written to me about this case. A 50% rule has been developed to support apprenticeship training for those who spend some of their time working in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. That rule is maintained, but I will continue to support cross-Government collaboration to see if these problems can be sorted out and I am happy to write to the Welsh Government about his constituent’s case.

Independent Schools

11. What recent assessment she has made of the quality and value of education provided by independent schools in England. (904507)

Independent schools, including those in my hon. Friend’s constituency, are an important part of our school system, giving parents choice. Independent schools drive innovation, support social mobility through bursaries and attract significant international investment. The diverse independent sector includes schools that serve small faith communities and that create special school capacity.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Can he ensure that other members of the Government show similar enthusiasm for the work and achievements of the independent schooling sector? Will he take this opportunity to thank all the families who make significant financial sacrifices to pay the fees of those schools for acting in the public interest and saving taxpayers quite a lot of money?

I am very happy to do that. My hon. Friend will be interested to know that approximately 8% of pupils attending Independent Schools Council schools receive around £480 million of bursaries and means-tested assistance.

Early Years Provision

We are removing one of the biggest barriers to parents working by vastly increasing the amount of free childcare that working families can access. By 2027-28, we expect to be spending in excess of £8 billion every year on free hours and early education, helping working families with their childcare costs.

As chair of the APPG on nursery schools, nursery and reception classes, may I welcome the extended entitlement introduced in the spring Budget, but will the supplementary funding to nursery schools be increased to cover the total entitlement, not just the 15 hours universal entitlement?

The Government recognise that maintained nursery schools make a valuable contribution, improving the lives of some of our most disadvantaged children. We will provide further details on funding arrangements for the new entitlements for 2024-25 in due course.

One of the multiple barriers to increasing early years provision is the availability of suitable and affordable premises in which to run pre-schools. For example, Chearsley and Haddenham under-fives pre-school in my constituency, known locally as CHUF, is on notice to vacate its current Haddenham site and has just over a year to find brand new premises. What can my hon. Friend’s Department do to support CHUF in its search for a new Haddenham site? What steps is she taking, in particular with colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, to ensure sites for childcare provision are fully included as an essential item to be funded through the new infrastructure levy?

Under the new infrastructure levy, which is being introduced through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, local authorities will have the flexibility to direct funds towards their own infrastructural priorities. That definitely includes childcare facilities. The Department also has regular contact with each local authority in England about its sufficiency of childcare and any issues that it may be facing.

In the spring Budget, the Chancellor announced new incentives for people registering as childminders, and a double incentive to register with childminding agencies. Will the Minister set out why she considers it necessary to incentivise childminders to sign up with agencies, and what conversations she and the Secretary of State had prior to the Budget with the Prime Minister and the agency in which his wife is a shareholder?

There is a very simple reason: we subsidise Ofsted’s registration costs, so a registration costs it about £35, whereas registering a childminder can cost a childminding agency £500-plus. The discrepancy is simply to balance out the fact that they have different costs. I know that the No. 10 team is collaborating with the commissioner to establish the facts and show that everything has been transparently declared.

Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

15. What steps she is taking to help improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. (904511)

21. What steps she is taking to help improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. (904518)

I want every child and young person, regardless of their special educational need or disability, to receive the right support to enjoy their childhood, succeed in their education and feel well prepared for their next step. The SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, which was published last month, sets out the next steps that we are taking to deliver a more positive experience for children, young people and families.

Today’s Guardian front page and our own House magazine lay out the disabling effects of severe mental health crisis among our young people. What urgent action will the Minister take to ensure wider access to crucial child and adolescent mental health services so that talking therapies can be delivered on time and be effective, and so that children can retake their learning and get on with their studies?

We are working closely with our counterparts in the Department of Health and Social Care, which is investing billions to ensure that 345,000 children can access CAMHS support. We are also rolling out mental health support in schools and are setting out best practice guides this year on a range of SEND issues. One of the first will be mental health and wellbeing, so that all teachers in all settings can ensure that they are doing the right thing.

The Children and Families Act 2014 sets out national standards in legislation for children with special educational needs and disabilities, but those legislative safeguards have not succeeded in delivering appropriate support for children and young people. Special needs school staff in Putney are excellent, but they have highlighted to me that the lack of funding or link-up to social care services—and to mental health services, as the Minister has highlighted—is the major barrier to providing the care that is needed. Why does the Minister believe that having new standards in the plan, but no new legislative underpinning, will deliver better outcomes?

One thing that we have tried to do in the reforms is get under the bonnet and find out why local authorities are struggling to deliver. That is why we are setting out a specialist workforce strategy and looking at initial teacher training: to ensure that we can catch things early and address them. I reassure the hon. Lady that we published the strategy in tandem with the Department of Health and Social Care, because we know that it is critical to achieving that.

It was recently proposed that the caretaker’s bungalow at Bridgewater Primary School in Berkhamsted was to be used for adult social care purposes, against the wishes of the school and many parents, who wanted to use the space to provide wraparound care provision. Of course I recognise the need for adult residential care, but does the Minister agree that we should be jumping at such opportunities to provide on-site provision for SEND students?

That particular decision will be one for the local council, but one thing I will say is that we are asking areas to set out local inclusion plans, not only so that they can assess all the need in their area, but so that we can assess whether they are meeting it.

While we all recognise the importance of increased maths, which has been much discussed today, it is vital for children’s life chances that literacy continues to improve. The only way to achieve that is by having better provision for children with special educational needs, including dyslexia, so will the Minister ensure that that continues to get the drive that it needs? Will she update the House on where she is up to with the improved teacher training that was committed to in the excellent paper earlier this year?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that literacy is one of the major priorities for the Department. We will be setting out best practice guides on early speech and language. In tandem with the phonics tests, they will be a really good way to screen children for dyslexia and make sure that with our initial teacher training improvements we are capturing and helping children who are struggling with things like dyslexia, as soon as possible.

Topical Questions

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.