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Commons Chamber

Volume 736: debated on Monday 17 July 2023

House of Commons

Monday 17 July 2023

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Skills and Apprenticeships: Funding

As I am sure everybody knows, I will never get tired of flying the flag for apprenticeships and skills. This Government are investing record levels of funding, with an additional £3.8 billion in skills over this Parliament. That includes an extra £1.6 billion for 16-to-19 education, and increasing investment in apprenticeships to £2.7 billion by 2024-25. That supports our commitment to create a world-leading skills system that is employer-focused, high quality, and fit for the future.

This Government’s schools, colleges and businesses around the country are working hard to show young people that going to university is not the only route to success, and there are now so many study options, which the RHA, the Federation of Small Businesses, and lots of Stroud businesses are talking to me about all the time. What is my right hon. Friend doing to reform the existing apprenticeship levy to work better for small businesses and students?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I am proud of all the work we have done on apprenticeships. We removed the limit on the number of apprentices that small businesses can take on, and we continue to pay 100% of training costs for the smallest employers, and allow levy payers to transfer 25% of their funds to support small and medium-sized enterprises. We spent 99.6% of the apprenticeship budget in 2021-22, which has helped to support 8,940 apprenticeship starts in my hon. Friend’s constituency since 2010. To continue that progress and ensure that everyone knows what apprenticeship opportunities are available, we are working with UCAS so that for the first time ever, young people will be able to use UCAS to search and apply for apprenticeships alongside degrees, making it easier for young people to find the right opportunity for them.

I thank the Secretary of State for visiting BAE Systems recently in Lancashire. Accrington and Rossendale College in my Hyndburn and Haslingden constituency has been successfully rolling out the T-level programme, but to ensure that young people in my constituency have the skills they need in areas such as technology and engineering, further capital investment is needed to ensure that it can continue to provide state-of-the-art facilities. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether there will be further waves of the T-level capital fund?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and for joining me on that visit, which I think was eye-opening for both of us. The Nelson & Colne College group, which includes Accrington and Rossendale College in my hon. Friend’s constituency, has benefited from capital investment of more than £6 million since 2010, including funding to improve the condition of its estate and support the delivery of T-levels and technical education. Most recently, it benefited from further investment as one of our 108 T-level capital projects, working towards delivering engineering and manufacturing T-levels. We will continue to support the roll-out of T-levels.

The Secretary of State will know that levelling up is about not geography but opportunity, and what better opportunity can we give our young people than a first-class education? Southampton has put in a bid for a university technical college. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she has seen our bid and will look favourably on it, and will she update the House on when we are likely to hear whether we have been successful?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuous campaigning on this subject. I do not know how many meetings we have had, but I see his passion to get a UTC in Southampton. I recently met Becky Smith, one of the fantastic former students of UTC Portsmouth, who is now a degree apprentice studying mechanical engineering at the University of Chichester in my constituency. She was full of praise for her time at UTC Portsmouth. We are currently considering the applications we have received. I have seen them all, and I have been through them in great detail in the latest free school wave, including Portsmouth’s bid for a new UTC in Southampton. We hope to announce the successful applications very soon.

Hospitality and tourism is an industry worth £3.5 billion a year to Cumbria, and it is our biggest employer. Apprenticeships are an important way into a career within that sector. The problem is that T-levels are a useful stepping stone into apprenticeships, yet the Government have again kicked into the long grass the T-level on catering, having already taken out the hospitality element of that. Will the Secretary of State meet me and representatives from Cumbria Tourism, so we can talk about how she can change that policy, and so that more young people can enter that important profession?

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. As he will know, I always have a laser-like focus on quality, and if the quality is not good enough then I will not release the apprenticeship, the apprenticeship standard or the T-level. Too often we have had low-quality qualifications in this country, and it is important that we work with a vast array of businesses to ensure that we get the quality system that they demand and that will be good for all our young people.

May I beg the Minister to pay attention to the fact that good apprenticeships and good training in any town and city must come from a blend of good universities—I think most of our universities are good—with local further education colleges? Will she take a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book, when he said in a recent important speech that what we need is more high-class universities and more polytechnics made up from the new former FE colleges?

As usual, we are ahead of the Opposition. We have already invested in 21 institutes of technology, which are where a group of colleges and universities work with employers in the area. They are a great addition to the landscape, along with all the other technical qualifications and skills training that we have introduced since 2010.

I welcome the funding made available to the space systems engineering degree apprenticeship and the opportunities that will provide young people in the UK’s growing space industry. What plans do Ministers have to fund similar apprenticeships in other emerging sectors?

It was a great pleasure to go to the space park in Leicester to launch the space systems engineering level 6 degree apprenticeship, on top of the level 4 space engineering apprenticeship, which I launched previously. There are many different routes into the space industry, which is important and something that we are good at in the UK. Any employers or employer groups wishing to develop an apprenticeship standard could work with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. We have worked with more than 5,000 employers in the past few years, and we have built more than 670 apprenticeship standards, none of which existed before we started the programme in 2012.

New research from the House of Commons Library has shown that the amount of the apprenticeship levy paid by employers that has been allocated to the apprenticeship budget has fallen from 89% in 2017 to just 77% in the most recent year. The truthful answer to the question from the hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) is that the Secretary of State is doing nothing to reform the apprenticeship levy, as she believes it is working perfectly. Can the Minister confirm that any employer that, like the hon. Member for Stroud, wants greater flexibility in the levy should vote Labour in the next general election?

There is nothing that would make me give such drastic advice. The truth about the apprenticeship levy is that 99.6% of it will be spent this year. We can look in the rear view mirror, and there are some reports going back over time that show some underspend in the levy, but they are back over time. We are now spending 99.6% of the levy. Perhaps what the hon. Gentleman has not appreciated is that some of the funding goes to the devolved Governments.[Official Report, 20 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 15MC.] If we examine the apprenticeship system in Wales and Scotland, it is not a patch on what we have introduced in England.

Persistent Absence from School

School attendance is important for not just a child’s education but their wellbeing and life chances, and it is a personal priority. We have: rolled out the daily attendance data tool; launched the attendance action alliance group of system leaders, which includes representatives from health, policing and social care; expanded the attendance hub support; and, deployed expert advice to work with local authorities. Termly persistent absence fell by a fifth from summer last year to spring this year, with 350,000 fewer persistently absent pupils, but we know we still have more to do, and it is a top priority for me.

Does the Secretary of State agree that shutting schools during covid lockdowns was a disaster for children and their mental health and has led to an explosion in severely absent rates? Will she make sure that cannot happen again by classifying all education settings, including schools, colleges and universities, as essential infrastructure, to ensure they remain open during national emergencies?

Schools were not shut during lockdown. Many of our fantastic teachers were still teaching key cohorts, supporting our NHS and the most vulnerable, such as those with special educational needs, but I fully share my right hon. Friend’s concerns about the impact that the pandemic has had on attainment, attendance and mental health. She knows we are working hard to recover, making almost £5 billion available for recovery. I can assure her that we will always seek to minimise the disruption to education in emergency situations. We all have a lot to learn from the experience during the pandemic, including the impact on children of all the decisions that we took, which were led by medical advice.

It is good to hear the Secretary of State prioritising getting children into school. Alongside her welcome funded pay offer, which will hopefully see an end to disruptive strikes, a real drive to reduce persistent absence and increase attendance would be welcome. A long-standing recommendation of the Education Committee is a statutory register of children not in school, which she is well aware of and has told us is a priority. May I therefore urge her to rapidly adopt the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) so that we can get on with delivering on that priority?

I thank my hon. Friend for his Committee’s work on this issue, which really is important. We have a world-class education system, but we need children in school to be able to take advantage of that. As he knows, my Department remains committed to legislating for statutory local authority registers of children not in school and will do so at the next suitable legislative opportunity when parliamentary time allows. I will work closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) on how we can best introduce that.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for her responses. It is obvious that she is committed to making things better. In the light of the covid home-schooling period during which parents may have forgotten the importance of socialisation as well as academic education, many may need reminding of the legal obligation to educate children. Has the Department considered tidying up the intervention period to allow early intervention and discussion with parents where possible before any action is taken?

We are very much taking a supportive approach. We know that there are complex reasons why some children are missing school—some have lost their confidence and are anxious about school and how far they are behind—so we are taking a focused approach. We have leads in local authorities working closely with schools, and we are measuring the impact of all the things we are doing, which includes attendance hubs, as well as looking to support parents to get their children back into school, where we know their outcomes will be so much better.

Maths Attainment: Primary Schools

5. What progress her Department has made on improving standards of attainment in mathematics in primary schools. (906001)

Ofsted’s report on school maths, published last week, stated:

“In the last few years, a resounding, positive shift in mathematics education has taken place in primary schools.”

In the 2019 TIMSS international survey of maths attainment for year 5 pupils, England achieved its highest ever score and rose from 10th out of 49 countries in 2015 to eighth out of 58 countries.

It is clearly good news that 73% of young people are achieving or exceeding the expected grades at the standard assessment tests. Measures have been taken to catch up after covid, which is really good news, but it is important that we lay the foundations in primary schools so that young people love mathematics and can continue to work on it until they are 18. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In addition to expanding the successful maths hubs programme to deliver teaching for mastery to 75% of primary schools by 2025, we are increasing delivery of the mastering number programme for reception to year 2, which helps students achieve fluency with number bonds, to 8,000 schools by 2024. We will also extend the programme into years 4 and 5 to bolster fluency in times tables.


At the spring statement, we announced the single largest investment in childcare in England ever. By 2027, the Government will be spending in excess of £8 billion, doubling the amount that we do now and helping working families with their childcare costs.

Good-quality childcare is essential to a child’s early development, to parents and to the economy. The owners of the Best Friends Day Nursery and the Spinney Day Nursery in Chester have told me of the real struggle faced by so many nurseries across the country, despite the Government’s latest funding announcement. Many have been forced to close, including five nurseries in the Hoole area alone in five years. What more will the Government do to alleviate the situation set out by my constituents?

As I have mentioned, we are putting the single largest ever investment into childcare over the next few years, to provide funding to settings such as the one she mentioned. We are also looking at things such as workforce, which we know can be a challenge, making sure that we remove barriers to additional routes to entry.

South West Hertfordshire is home to lots of young couples, particularly those who have moved out of London to start their families. Could the Minister tell the House how her Department is supporting new parents as they return to work?

That is a huge priority for this Government. The funding that we are setting out will provide parents with support worth, on average, £6,500 a year from maternity leave right up to primary school. We are doing additional work to support things such as wraparound care.

Across the early years sector, nurseries and childminders are raising concerns that the Government have no coherent plan for the expansion of the early years workforce to meet the requirements of an expanded offer. The only ideas on the table so far are the relaxation of ratios and a reduction in the proportion of level 2 qualified staff—plans that the Sutton Trust has found could lead to worse outcomes for children. Why are this Government so uninterested in the quality of childcare and the outcomes that high-quality early years education delivers for children?

The Government care about education standards. That is seen across every single result across the board, whether reading or maths results. It is this Government who care about education standards. Over 90% of our early years providers are rated good or outstanding. We will do everything we can to keep them that way.

Bullying in Schools

All children should have access to a calm, safe and supportive school environment. In addition to school behaviours policies that must include measures to prevent bullying, we have provided more than £3 million in funding between August 2021 and March 2024 to five anti-bullying organisations supporting schools in tackling bullying.

I congratulate my hon. Friend for all her work tackling bullying. So many constituents write to me about the problems their children are experiencing. How are the behaviour hubs making a difference in schools and tackling the bullying that is so prevalent, particularly as a result of online harms and social media, which are all too frequent?

We are confident that the behaviour hubs programme is helping schools to create calm, understanding and positive environments by spreading best practice. The behaviour hubs programme is being evaluated and impact assessed. We will publish an interim report in 2024. I would be delighted to discuss those findings with my right hon. Friend.

Last week I introduced by ten-minute rule Bill on bullying and respect at work. It is not just children who experience bullying in the school environment but teachers and other staff. Will the Minister look at my Bill, which will establish a legal definition of bullying at work and a route to employment tribunal to protect the people who are looking after our children in our schools?

I have not seen the hon. Lady’s Bill, but I would be happy to take a look and have a discussion with her.

Recruitment and Retention

10. What steps she is taking to support the recruitment and retention of teachers in the further education sector. (906006)

Our teachers do an incredible job and inspire children every day. Last week, we accepted the independent pay review body’s recommendations in full, giving schoolteachers their largest pay award for 30 years of at least 6.5%. I also announced funding for the further education sector to address key priorities, including teacher recruitment and retention. To help us get more of the top talent into teaching, we are delivering on our 2019 manifesto commitment to raise the starting salary for teachers to a minimum of £30,000. That is a competitive salary that will help us to continue to build on the record numbers of teachers in our schools in England.

The further education sector is facing a teaching crisis, not fully addressed by the pay review body. In my constituency, East Durham College has had two teacher vacancies in engineering and a computer science position unfilled for 18 months. Barriers to recruitment include high workload, qualification reform, excessive assessment and a huge pay disparity compared with comparable work in industry. Could the Secretary of State tell us what steps she is taking to ensure that further education teaching is an attractive and viable career?

I very much care about further education and ensuring that it has the funding. That is why, as of last week, we are investing an additional £185 million in the financial year 2023-24 and £285 million in 2024-25 to drive forward skills delivery in further education. The Government do not set pay for the FE sector. However, I have been clear that I expect that funding, which is new funding, to go to the frontline. I hope the investment will support the FE sector to address its recruitment and retention challenges. In addition, we introduced bursaries of £29,000 for STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—subjects, and the Taking Teaching Further programme is working with industry and paying £6,000 to attract those from industry who want to spend their second career in FE teaching.

We have seen a significant increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession in Durham. They are burnt out and their unmanageable workloads are made harder by support staff redundancies in schools where there is an absence of furniture and equipment, with children even carrying chairs between lessons so that there is somewhere to sit. One teacher said to me, “It is like being a baker with no flour, a delivery driver without a van, an IT specialist without a computer.” When will the Department provide the absolute basics for our schools in Durham?

We are going even further than the basics, because we will be funding education higher than we have ever funded it in our history. It will be £60 billion next year. But I do take workload seriously. As part of our discussions with the unions, we have agreed to set up a workload taskforce, which has a target to remove five hours from the school working week in addition to the five hours we have already reduced. Last year, more teachers entered the profession than left it: 47,954 entered the profession and 43,997 left it. If we look at the averages, the leavers rate has been stable since 2010, but we are investing more in our education system than ever before.

One particularly challenging area of work for teachers is special needs education. There are many who want to work in that field, but in Essex our special needs schools are unfortunately already full to bursting. That is why, today, I am launching a campaign for a new special needs school in south Essex. I met the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) in advance and he was very helpful. Will the Secretary of State and the Schools Minister work with me and Essex County Council to try to get us the additional special needs places in Essex that parents and special needs children so desperately need?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. This is something we have already announced: we will invest £2.6 billion in building more special schools. We are getting another one in Sussex and many hon. Members are getting more special educational needs schools in their areas. We would be very happy to work with him and Essex County Council to ensure the right provision in Essex for all children who have additional needs.

I pay tribute to all the staff and teachers at my local FE college, Basingstoke College of Technology for all the work they do to ensure that young people in my constituency are ready for work. The reform of BTECs is causing some uncertainty when it comes to staffing for the future in the college. Will my right hon. Friend join me and headteacher Anthony Bravo for a meeting to discuss those concerns, so that we can continue to ensure that the young people of Basingstoke are work-ready in large numbers?

Yes, I am always happy to meet my right hon. Friend and her college. I have had many meetings on this subject. We are focused on ensuring that high quality T-levels are introduced across the country in all colleges, so that young people can access them. We are also looking, side by side, to see what BTEC qualifications will sit alongside A-levels as part of our level 3 offer.

Foster Care Placements

We know that we need more foster carers. That is a really important part of our plan, “Stable Homes, Built on Love”, to reform the care system. We are investing £27 million in recruitment and retention over the next two years. We have also increased the national minimum allowance for foster parents by 12.4% as part of those plans.

Does my hon. Friend agree that foster carers can play a vital role in improving the health and wellbeing of a looked-after child, and that we need to encourage more people to go into foster caring by removing unnecessary bureaucratic barriers so that we can build a network of foster carers across the country to improve the life chances of children in care?

This is a big priority for me. Some children end up in children’s homes when they should have ended up with foster carers, so we need to recruit more. As I have said, we are making a significant investment in recruitment and retention so that we can keep some of our brilliant, experienced foster carers as well as attracting more into the system.

Reading Standards: Primary-age Children

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study was published in May this year. England had come fourth among 43 countries that tested children of the same age, nine and 10-year-olds. In 2012 we introduced the phonics screening check, testing six-year-olds for their progress in reading and phonics.[Official Report, 20 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 15MC.] In that year, 58% of pupils reached the expected standard; by 2019, just before the pandemic, the proportion had risen to 82% following a transformation in the teaching of phonics in nearly all primary schools.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the National Literacy Trust and Bloomsbury Publishing for including a number of schools in Hastings and St Leonards in their pioneering new reading programme, which is specifically aimed at persuading more children to read for pleasure, and will he encourage parents and carers to engage in a programme that is a vital part of their children’s development?

I recently met Jonathan Douglas of the National Literacy Trust, and I thank the trust for its enormous contribution to raising the profile of reading for pleasure in schools. Its new programme—which, as my hon. Friend said, it launched in partnership with Bloomsbury—involves working with seven Brighton Academies Trust schools throughout Hastings to encourage more children to read for pleasure.

In its White Paper for schools, published last year, the Government’s headline ambition was for 90% of pupils leaving primary school to meet the expected standards in reading, writing and maths. Why does the Minister think that, since that pledge, tens of thousands more children have been leaving primary school without meeting those standards?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, owing to the pandemic we did see a fall in writing and maths standards. Reading standards rose, and then fell by two points this year. However, reading standards today are broadly similar to those before the pandemic, and since 2010 both reading and maths have improved enormously in primary schools throughout the country. I am confident that we will meet the 90% target by 2030.

We cannot talk about attainment at any level without also taking into account child poverty. The link between undernourishment and lower reading standards and, therefore, attainment across the board is irrefutable. When children are hungry, they cannot focus on learning. The Scottish Government are currently rolling out free school meals for all primary school children. When will the Minister take decisive steps to combat child poverty and emulate the actions of the Scottish Government?

Under this Government, the number of children receiving free school meals has increased hugely. About a third of children are now eligible for either benefits-related free school meals or the universal infant free school meals introduced by our 2010 Government. However, the hon. Lady should be careful when talking about reading and education standards, because standards in this country have risen significantly, and I am not sure that the same can be said for Scotland.

Local Secondary School Provision: Sittingbourne and Sheppey

14. Whether her Department is taking steps to ensure that secondary age children in Sittingbourne and Sheppey constituency are able to attend a local school. (906010)

My hon. Friend and I have discussed education provision on the Isle of Sheppey many times over the years. Given the inadequate Ofsted grading for Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey, the school is now being removed from the Oasis Community Learning trust to a strong multi-academy trust.

I welcome that response from my very right hon. Friend.

Currently, 1,000 children a day are bussed from the Isle of Sheppey to Sittingbourne schools because parents do not want to send their children to the Isle of Sheppey academy, which means that all Sittingbourne secondary schools are over-subscribed and many children in the town cannot get into their local schools. As my right hon. Friend said, the Department is in the process of transferring the academy to a new multi-academy trust, but with the end of the summer term fast approaching, island parents have no idea whether that transfer will happen, or, if it does, what form it will take. As my right hon. Friend knows, I have been working with the Department on secondary education problems on the Isle of Sheppey for many years, and I know that officials are doing their best, but what can he do to speed up the process and end the current uncertainties?

I pay tribute to my very hon. Friend for his passion for improving standards in schools in his constituency. The transfer of the Isle of Sheppey academy to a new multi-academy trust is a priority for the Department. A strong preferred sponsor has been found, and a proposal is being developed by them. Once those plans are completed, they will be put to parents before a final decision is taken by the trust and the Department on the academy transfer.

Student Visa Eligibility: Impact on Higher Education Sector

15. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the potential impact of changes to the eligibility criteria for student visas on the competitiveness of the higher education sector. (906011)

As part of our commitment to have at least 600,000 students study in the UK every year, we have worked closely with the Home Office to strike the right balance between acting decisively on migration, being fair to the taxpayer and protecting our position as a world leader in higher education. We fully expect Britain to remain an attractive destination for students across the world.

I thank the Minister for his answer. My constituency of Edinburgh South West is home to two leading universities: Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Napier. Research by Universities UK shows that the constituency’s net economic benefit from international students is £170.8 million. The Government plan to massage the net migration figures by making the UK less attractive to international students. That is going to harm the economy in my constituency, Scotland’s economy and our educational institutions. Can the Minister tell me: is that an example of the Union delivering for Scotland?

I am not quite sure what problem the hon. and learned Lady is trying to solve. I mentioned to her that our target was 600,000 international students; we have surpassed that—679,000 international students are coming to our country, which is something we are proud of. But as I said, we have to be fair to not only international students and universities but the taxpayer, who bears the cost of the infrastructure. But I agree with the hon. and learned Lady that international students have a huge impact on the economy, of up to £37 billion-plus.

Time after time, we find that every Government Department is short of young graduates with digital skills. Will my right hon. Friend think about making an application to the Home Office to encourage more visas to be granted to students who want to take digital degrees in this country?

My hon. Friend is learned in these matters, but they are for the Home Office. We are developing our digital skills at home with amazing digital apprenticeships. Half of our 670 apprenticeship standards are in STEM subjects, and there are T-levels and higher technical qualifications in digital. We are spending on the digital skills that our local people need. We have to give them the skills they need as well.

Institutional Partnerships: Further and Higher Education

16. What steps she is taking to increase partnerships between further education colleges and higher education institutions to help increase learning opportunities. (906012)

We are transforming tertiary education by building state of the art prestigious institute of technology colleges, backed by £300 million and led by further education and higher education businesses. We have also introduced the lifelong loan entitlement—it is in the House of Lords at the moment. That will allow higher and further education to collaborate, offering short courses and the transfer of courses between FE and HE institutions.

Last week, I met representatives of the National Farmers Union at the Great Yorkshire Show. We discussed the great need for new skills and a skilled workforce in areas such as agro-ecology. What work is his Department doing to link specialist agricultural colleges with the non-specialist FE and HE sector?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We have good land colleges and we are doing everything we can to support them. There are two institute of technology colleges in Yorkshire, although not in his area. I am sure that he will be pleased with the investment of £88 million in his area into FE, sixth form and the university technical college, as well as a grammar school. We are doing a lot of work on agricultural T-levels as well.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to work with employers, local authorities and jobcentres to ensure that as many adults as possible are aware of the opportunities available to them to learn and upskill?

My right hon. Friend speaks with huge wisdom. We are transforming careers advice through the National Careers Service, which is advising people on adult skills. We are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on boot camps and on more than 400 free level 3 courses. Our apprenticeship scheme offers hundreds of different apprenticeships. Through careers advice and our skills offer, we are ensuring that adults get the skills they need.

As a working-class kid from the constituency I now represent, I am not sure where I would be today if not for the opportunity I had to study for a so-called “Mickey Mouse degree” at university. After today’s media push and the Government’s apparent crackdown on students, how does the Minister expect us to believe that this is not just a ruse to protect the privileges of the Timothies and Tabithas of the home counties, as opposed to working-class kids?

The hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong. Why is it right to send somebody to a higher education institution, taking out a significant loan of £9,250 each year, to take a course that leads either to poor completion, poor continuation or poor progression? This Government are stopping that by imposing recruitment caps on such courses. I am proud that record numbers of disadvantaged students are going to university. More disadvantaged students are going to university than ever before.

Parents and pupils across Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke wait anxiously to find out the result of the fantastic bid made by the further education City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College and the higher education Staffordshire University for a free school to unleash the digital skills, in particular, that we want to see in Stoke-on-Trent. Will my right hon. Friend lobby the Schools Minister and the Secretary of State not only to make sure this is announced soon, but to make sure it is delivered quickly so that we get the school places we so desperately need?

I was very pleased to visit Staffordshire University, which is a model university that offers a brilliant policing degree apprenticeship scheme, among others. The Secretary of State is listening carefully to the bid, and I am sure she will make the announcement shortly.

The introduction of the lifelong loan entitlement, which we all support, will inevitably require greater collaboration between higher education and further education providers, but under the current regulatory system, as the lines between HE and FE blur, we are seeing significant regulatory duplication and increased burden. This acts as a brake on partnership. Does the Minister not recognise the need to streamline the regulatory system to foster collaboration ahead of, rather than after, the introduction of the LLE?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the lifelong loan entitlement of up to £37,000 will be transformative for millions of people across the country, enabling them to take short or modular courses at a time of their choosing. We are looking at regulation across the higher education and further education sector, and we are doing all we can to reduce it, but I recognise some of the issues he raises.

Tuition Fees: Social Mobility

17. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of tuition fees on the social mobility of young people. (906014)

The introduction of tuition fees has not led to fewer disadvantaged young people going into higher education. As I have already highlighted, the 18-year-old entry rate for disadvantaged students in England increased from 14.4% in 2011 to 25.1% in 2022. We saw record numbers of disadvantaged students going into higher education in 2022, with the rate for students on free school meals going up from 20% to 30%.

I thank the Minister for that answer but, in the last academic year, English students graduated with £30,000 more debt, on average, than their Scottish counterparts. Despite this, both the Government and the Labour party refuse to follow the Scottish Government’s lead by abolishing tuition fees in England. With more than 16,000 undergraduates dropping out of higher education this year, will this Government admit that their policies are pushing students into debt, and often out of university?

Actually, we are being fair both to students and to all those taxpayers who do not go to university. I might point out that low-income students living away from home will qualify for more living cost support over the coming year than low-income students in Scotland.

The new Labour dream of 50% of young people going to university has left many saddled with debt, a third of graduates unable to find graduate jobs and more than half of graduates never earning enough to repay their student loans, so I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement today of a reduction in the number of low-value degrees, which benefit neither students nor taxpayers. Will the Department look to go further by identifying whole universities that could be transformed into higher technical and vocational institutions, which would give far more young people the opportunities and training they really need for the productive jobs of the future?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, in the sense that the Labour party was all about quantity over quality, and we are about quality, high standards and a good education. We are already doing a lot of what she wants, because we are introducing institutes of technology, which are collaborations between higher education and further education that provide flagship skills and teach higher technical qualifications, with 21 across the country. They are doing exactly what she wants us to do.

Topical Questions

This week, I have accepted the independent review body’s recommendation in full, so our fantastic teachers will receive their highest pay award for 30 years—it will be at least 6.5%. From September, we will have delivered on our manifesto commitment by raising teachers’ starting salaries to £30,000. To support our school leaders, we are providing an extra £525 million this year and a further £900 million in 2024-25. This is not just about schools, because we will also be investing £185 million and £285 million in our further education colleges over the same period. All four unions have recommended the pay award, and it is fully funded. I hope that teachers will join them, so that we can bring an end to strike action and get our teachers doing what they do best: teaching the next generation.

UK students who have been offered opportunities to study abroad are waiting for funding decisions under the Turing scheme. Clearly, for students from less well-off families this is tough, as visas and accommodation have to be paid in advance. Will the Secretary of State, out of the kindness of her heart and to a man from the highlands, give a commitment to bring forward these decisions next year, to make the Turing scheme more accessible to all students, regardless of their background?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The Turing scheme is a great success. Disadvantaged students will take up two thirds of the international study and work opportunities from September, with students going to 160 different countries. It is a remarkable scheme, given that it has been introduced so quickly. It is a new demand-led scheme, but I will work with the sector to make improvements to it and make sure that people are funded in time.

T3. I attended a meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on fisheries, which I normally chair, where a keenness was expressed to encourage young people to have an interest in a career in fishing at the education stage. I have heard similar pleas from farmers. What more can the Department do to make that a reality? (906024)

My hon. Friend is a true fisherman’s friend, although a lot sweeter tasting than the lozenges, I might add. She will be pleased to know that high-quality apprenticeship standards in agriculture and a level 2 fisher apprenticeship are available. We are promoting apprenticeships, including in agriculture, in our schools, and through the apprenticeship support and knowledge programme, and the Careers & Enterprise Company.

Ministers have known since last year that strike action by teachers was likely, yet after months of refusing to talk, it was only last week that the Secretary of State finally settled the dispute. Will she take this opportunity to apologise to parents for the completely needless and avoidable disruption to their children’s education for which she is responsible?

Since I came into this job at the end of October, the unions asked for an extra £2 billion and I delivered it; families asked for childcare and I delivered it; the School Teachers Review Body asked for 6.5% for teachers and I delivered it; and that had to be funded, and I have delivered it. I have worked to deliver every day in this job, whereas the hon. Lady cannot even decide whether she will accept 6.5% or not.

Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that ending private schools’ tax breaks will raise up to £1.5 billion in additional revenue, confirming that Labour’s plans are fiscally credible. We would use that money to invest in 6,500 new expert teachers and better mental health support for all our young people. Will the Secretary of State distance herself from the discredited claim of the private schools’ lobby, do the right thing and adopt Labour’s plan to drive up standards in our schools?

Labour has never driven up a standard in our schools. Most of our private schools are nothing like Eton or Harrow; they are far smaller and they charge a lot less. Many cost the same as a family holiday abroad, and there are plenty of parents who choose to forgo life’s luxuries to give their children those opportunities. The IFS also said:

“The effect might be larger over the medium to long run… There is still lots of uncertainty around these estimates.”

Labour’s tax hikes are nothing more than the politics of envy. As Margaret Thatcher once said:

“The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.”

T4. Will the Minister update my constituents on the progress being made towards opening a new free school in Warrington, to provide better and more appropriate education for young people with autism and other special educational needs? (906025)

We recently changed the location of the Warrington free school from the Bruche Primary School to a better suited site at Padgate, with the agreement of the local authority and the trust. We are now working with all parties to begin design preparation work and the school is on track to open in September 2025.

Today, headteachers in England have spoken of an unprecedented struggle to recruit teachers, because teachers in England feel undervalued and underpaid. To combat this, when will the UK Government match the offer made by the Scottish Government, which will see most Scottish teachers’ pay rise by 14.6% by January 2024, delivering a starting salary of £39,000, which is much more than the £30,000 that the Secretary of State has boasted about today for teachers in England?

In England, standards are rising. We have a record number of teachers in our profession: 468,000 teachers, which is some 27,000 more than in 2010. We value education in this country, standards are rising and they will continue to rise, provided we have a Conservative Government.

T5.   I was pleased to welcome Department for Education officials to Tipton St John Primary School in my constituency of East Devon recently. Thanks to the Department, the school has the funding it needs and now has priority status in the school rebuilding programme. That is thanks to the Conservative Government. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the project’s great progress so far? (906026)

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. Progress is being made in identifying and securing a site on which to relocate the school. Officials continue to work with Devon County Council and the diocese of Exeter. I thank my hon. Friend for his support in progressing the discussions. The next step is for site appraisals to take place on potential new locations, and officials will continue to keep my hon. Friend informed.

T2. A record 40,000 teachers in England resigned last year; teacher vacancies have doubled in the last two years; and agencies and underfunded training programmes are struggling to send qualified teachers to schools. Amy Lassman, the headteacher of Nelson Mandela Primary School, an outstanding primary school in my constituency, tells me that that is affecting students the most, with many failing their classes. Will Ministers tell us what they intend to do to narrow the attainment gap and raise standards, when we have fewer and fewer teachers? (906023)

We continue to raise standards in our schools, as the hon. Gentleman will know. He should not talk down the profession. This is an exciting time to join teaching. It is an honour to be able to work with children and to shape the next generation. This year, 47,000 people came into teaching, a number that is broadly similar year on year, because this is a good profession to join and there is a Government that will support the teaching profession.

T7. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education for visiting the Busy Bees nursery in my constituency of Crawley earlier this month, and for the £204 million of investment that the Government are putting into childcare providers. Does that not demonstrate that the Conservative Government are now delivering for working parents? (906028)

I know that my hon. Friend has done a lot of work in this sector. It was wonderful to visit Busy Bees and the fantastic team who work there. As well as the £204 million increase for providers, we have announced a £289 million investment to develop our universal wraparound childcare offer. We are the party of working parents. Labour has flip-flopped repeatedly on childcare, announcing vague policies in the autumn, which it quickly backtracked on. Its new plan, which I hear is to be means-tested, would snatch away childcare from thousands of hard-working parents. We are rolling out the largest investment in childcare in our history; Labour cannot even keep to its word.

I say gently to the Secretary of State that I was very generous at the beginning, but that does not carry on all the way through topicals. I want you to set a good example in this school classroom.

T6. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to improve the development of children’s early speech and language skills, especially in schools such as the wonderful Chester Blue Coat Primary School where 39 languages are spoken? (906027)

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. This is really important. We are trying to make sure that all staff in early years settings are better equipped. We will be setting out a practice guide specifically on early years speech and language, as well as working with the NHS on better diagnostics.

T8.   Labour-run Kirklees Council has been sitting on millions of pounds of unspent section 106 infrastructure payments, much of which has been allocated for local schools. In the meantime, I have a local school that has a leaky roof. It is impairing the teachers’ ability to teach the children. May I please ask the Minister what is happening with the latest round of condition improvement funding to help with school repairs? (906029)

I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. We have spent £15 billion since 2015 on repairs and maintenance of our school estate. We intend to announce any successful appeals from the latest condition improvement fund round this month, as CIF typically opens for applications each autumn. Eligible schools with an urgent condition need that cannot wait until the next round may of course apply for the urgent capital support.

T9. The mental wellbeing of young people and children is really important. Last week, I met staff from Ebor Academy Trust and our mental health trust to talk about how better provision can be put in place. Labour has committed to ensuring that we have mental health professionals in our schools, but in this school it was the teaching assistants providing most of the care. How are we ensuring that teaching assistants are properly rewarded? (906030)

Rates for teaching assistants are set by the local authority. Teaching assistants are highly regarded by all of us. As the hon. Lady says, they provide important pastoral care alongside the mental health support that we are rolling out via the mental health support teams.

T10. Higher education already publishes outcomes data, so students choosing courses can compare what their chances of employment and earning power will be for each course at each college or university and make fully informed decisions. Does the Minister accept that publishing outcomes for further education alongside higher education not only shows students the best courses and colleges, but puts FE and HE on an equal footing for the first time and pushes those offering low-value FE and HE qualifications to either shape up or close down? (906031)

I know that my hon. Friend is a champion of his brilliant Weston College, which is an example of the greatness of our FE colleges. He will be pleased to know that the DFE publishes outcomes data on further education, which shows statistics on the employment, earnings and learning outcomes of further education learners. We are introducing a data dashboard, which is in the direction of travel in which he wants to go.

Despite statutory guidance to reduce the costs of school uniforms, far too many schools are requiring four and up to five branded items. What more will the Minister do to intervene to ensure that schools abide by the law?

I thank the hon. Member for his private Member’s Bill that, with the Government’s support, enabled us to put the guidance on a statutory footing. About 61% of headteachers are aware of that guidance and are taking action to implement it. If parents are still concerned that the school uniform is too expensive, they can raise it with the school and go through the school’s complaints process.

In the absence of any Ofsted oversight or regulation of multi-academy trusts, will my right hon. Friend tell me what mechanism is in place for a school to escalate concerns over the pooling of pupil grant funding, especially in a situation where a multi-academy trust gives a school considerably less money than the Education and Skills Funding Agency allowance for that school?

Academy trusts can pool their general annual grant to deliver key improvements and efficiencies across the academies in the trust. The academy trust handbook requires consideration of each school’s needs and an appeals mechanism, which can be escalated to the ESFA.

In my constituency of Edinburgh West this week, students are graduating, some of them with unclassified results, because of a dispute involving marking. This is making it difficult for those wishing to do masters or PhDs, particularly foreign students who have been told that they will have to reapply for visas. Are the Department for Education and the Home Office looking at ways of facilitating those students taking up the places that they have been offered without the classification and avoiding that problem with the visas?

UK Visas and Immigration will consider exercising discretion, and will hold graduate route applications made before the applicant results have been received, provided that the results are received within eight weeks of the application being made. Students who do not know when they will receive their results due to the boycott will be able to extend their permission while they wait for their results. They will be exceptionally exempt from meeting academic progression requirements. I will write to the hon. Lady with fuller details.

Recently I visited Rushmere Hall Primary School in Ipswich, which is doing a fantastic job to support all neurodiverse pupils, particularly dyslexic pupils; however, its head spoke of a need for all regular teachers to have a better base understanding of neurodiversity, not just new specialists. In the special educational needs and disabilities improvement plan, the Government committed to that. I would like an update on how far we are getting with delivering that in practice.

I thank my hon. Friend, who I know is an amazing campaigner on this issue. We are doing a lot to progress the support in schools, making sure that we have access to a specialist workforce and that teachers have proper training. We will set out a best practice guide on autism specifically, for which we have seen a big rise in need.

The price of school meals has increased by more than a third in some parts of the UK, yet the Government, and indeed the Labour Front Benchers, will not commit to universal free school meals for primary school-age children. The Scottish Government are rolling out free school meals across all primary schools. The question is when this Government will take the lead from the Scottish Government and act decisively to help struggling families.

Record numbers of pupils in England are now eligible for a free school meal. Under universal infant free school meals, all infant pupils get a free meal. A third of children in our schools are receiving a free school meal. We believe very strongly, however, that we should focus the funding on the children in the greatest need. We keep the issue under review, but our focus is always on the most disadvantaged.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), the Chair of the Education Committee, mentioned my Children Not in School (Register) Bill, which passed its First Reading with support from colleagues across all parties and both Houses. The Schools Minister himself said before the Select Committee last month:

“It is important that we know where children are and can make sure that they are safe.”

Therefore, is it not critical that the Government work with me to expedite the Bill, as an existing and ongoing legislation vehicle that the Government can use without any further delay?

As I have pointed out, we do intend to legislate for the children not in school measures and put attendance on a statutory footing when the legislative timetable allows, looking at the sitting Fridays that are left within this period. The Department is currently running a call for evidence on improving the support for children missing from education, and that evidence will be used to inform future policy.

Does the Secretary of State think that something might be going seriously wrong when children in our junior schools are being indoctrinated by gender ideology at the same time as senior Members of this House appear unable to define what a woman is?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I am more than capable of defining what a woman is. It is true that some schools are asking for guidance in this area, so we intend to bring forward guidance. I am working with my right hon. Friend the Equalities Minister to bring that forward in the near term.

Last week, 14 officers from West Midlands police were recognised at the Police Bravery Awards for forming a human chain and breaking through the ice as Fin, Tom, Jack and Sam fell through in sub-zero temperatures at Babbs Mill lake in Kingshurst. I thank the Minister for his time on this previously. What progress has been made in revising the relationships, health and sex education curriculum guidelines specifically on understanding the implications of cold water shock on the body?

What happened to my hon. Friend’s constituents is tragic. Swimming and water safety are in the national curriculum, and the Government are updating the school sport and activity action plan, which will set out actions to help all pupils take part in sport and keep fit, including swimming and water safety. The plan will be published this year to align with the timing of the Government’s new school sport strategy.

The Secretary of State told the media at the weekend that she had found the money for the pay settlement from an underspend in the Department. Can she tell the House exactly where she found the money and what policies have not been delivered?

I am delighted to. We have a constructive relationship with the Treasury, whether on childcare, school funding or extra budgeting, and in this particular case what we have done, as I have done many times in my 30-year business career, is to go through every line of the budget. We spend £100 billion on education, so there are a lot of things in that budget, and we have gone through it and checked every single assumption. Some are demand led and some depend on the roll-out of certain projects. We have protected the frontline and reprioritised; what has changed is that the Treasury has allowed us to keep that money to reprioritise—[Interruption.] It is an answer. The right hon. Lady may not understand, because she does not—

Order. I am not sure the Secretary of State is understanding me, either. When I say these are topicals, I mean that—[Interruption.] Order. No, I am sorry; if you do not want Members on your side of the House to get in, please say so, because that is what is going to happen, and it is totally unfair to the people who are waiting. Let us play by the rules—that is what we expect from all of us.

I recently visited the impressive National STEM Learning Centre in York and was fortunate enough to be able to observe some of its work. I would be delighted if my right hon. Friend could visit, but in the interim, can she detail what professional support is available for teachers in their continuing professional development?

We have engaged in an extensive reform of teacher training, introducing what we call the golden thread: a higher level of requirements in initial teacher training and a two-year early career framework for teachers just starting off in their career. Those standards will mean that in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and in all subjects, teachers are better prepared to enter the profession.

The chairs of the governing bodies of 19 primary and secondary schools across the London Boroughs of Richmond and Kingston upon Thames have today written to the Education Secretary, requesting an urgent meeting to discuss the crippling funding and recruitment challenges they face. Will she agree to meet them?

Of course the Secretary of State will agree, as she has just said to me. We are spending record amounts of funding on schools. The Secretary of State achieved an extra £2 billion in the autumn statement last year and we are now spending £59.6 billion on school funding.[Official Report, 20 July 2023, Vol. 736, c. 16MC.] We have recruited 2,800 more teachers this year than last year and we have a record number of teachers in the profession, at 468,000, but of course I am happy to talk to the hon. Lady and the teachers in her constituency to discuss their particular concerns.

Higher Education Reform

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to announce the publication of the Government’s higher education reform consultation response. This country is one of the best in the world for studying in higher education, boasting four of the world’s top 10 universities. For most, higher education is a sound investment, with graduates expected to earn on average £100,000 more over their lifetime than those who do not go to university.

However, there are still pockets of higher education provision where the promise that university education will be worthwhile does not hold true and where an unacceptable number of students do not finish their studies or find a good job after graduating. That cannot continue. It is not fair to taxpayers who subsidise that education, but most of all it is not fair to those students who are being sold a promise of a better tomorrow, only to be disappointed and end up paying far into the future for a degree that did not offer them good value.

We want to make sure that students are charged a fair price for their studies and that a university education offers a good return. Our reforms are aimed at achieving that objective. That is why the Government launched the consultation in 2022, to seek views on policies based on recommendations made by Sir Philip Augar and his independent panel. The consultation ended in May 2022, and the Department for Education has been considering the responses received. I am now able to set out the programme of reforms that we are taking forward.

I believe that the traditional degree continues to hold great value, but it is not the only higher education pathway. Over the past 13 years, we have made substantial reforms to ensure that the traditional route is not the only pathway to a good career. Higher technical qualifications massively enhance students’ skills and career prospects, and deserve parity of esteem with undergraduate degrees. We have seen a growth in degree-level apprenticeships, with over 188,000 students enrolling since their introduction in 2014. I have asked the Office for Students to establish a £40 million competitive degree apprenticeships fund to drive forward capacity-building projects to broaden access to degree apprenticeships over the next two years.

That drive to encourage skills is why we are also investing up to £115 million to help providers deliver higher technical education. In March, we set out detailed information on how the lifelong learning entitlement will transform the way in which individuals can undertake post-18 education, and we continue to support that transformation through the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill, which is currently passing through the other place. We anticipate that that funding, coupled with the introduction of the LLE from 2025, will help to incentivise the take-up of higher technical education, filling vital skills gaps across the country.

Each of those reforms has had one simple premise: that we are educating people with the skills that will enable them to have a long and fulfilling career. I believe that we should have the same expectation for higher education: it should prepare students for life by giving them the right skills and knowledge to get well-paid jobs. With the advent of the LLE, it is neither fair nor right for students to use potentially three quarters of their lifelong loan entitlement for a university degree that does not offer them good returns. That would constrain their future ability to learn, earn and retrain. We must shrink the parts of the sector that do not deliver value, and ensure that students and taxpayers are getting value for money given their considerable investment.

Data shows that there were 66 providers from which fewer than 60% of graduates progressed to high-skilled employment or further study fifteen months after graduating. That is not acceptable. I will therefore issue statutory guidance to the OfS setting out that it should impose recruitment limits on provision that does not meet its rigorous quality requirements for positive student outcomes, to help to constrain the size and growth of courses that do not deliver for students. We will also ask the OfS to consider how it can incorporate graduate earnings into its quality regime. We recognise that many factors can influence graduate earnings, but students have a right to expect that their investment in higher education will improve their career prospects, and we should rightly scrutinise courses that appear to offer limited added value to students on the metric that matters most to many.

We will work with the OfS to consider franchising arrangements in the sector. All organisations that deliver higher education must be held to robust standards. I am concerned about some indications that franchising is acting as a potential route for low quality to seep into the higher education system, and I am absolutely clear that lead providers have a responsibility to ensure that franchised provision is of the same quality as directly delivered provision. If we find examples of undesirable practices, we will not hesitate to act further on franchising.

As I have said, we will ensure that students are charged a fair price for their studies. That is why we are also reducing to £5,760 the fees for classroom-based foundation year courses such as business studies and social sciences, in line with the highest standard funding rate for access to HE diplomas. Recently we have seen an explosion in the growth of many such courses, but limited evidence that they are in the best interests of students. We are not reducing the fee limits for high-cost, strategically important subjects such as veterinary sciences and medicine, but we want to ensure that foundation years are not used to add to the bottom line of institutions at the expense of those who study them. We will continue to monitor closely the growth of foundation year provision, and we will not hesitate to introduce further restrictions or reductions. I want providers to consider whether those courses add value for students, and to phase out that provision in favour of a broad range of tertiary options with the advent of the LLE.

Our aim is that everyone who wants to benefit from higher education has the opportunity to do so. That is why we will not proceed at this time with a minimum requirement of academic attainment to access student finance—although we will keep that option under review. I am confident that the sector will respond with the ambition and focused collaboration required to deliver this package of reforms. I extend my wholehearted thanks to those in the sector for their responses to the consultation.

This package of reforms represents the next step in tackling low-quality higher education, but it will not be the last step. The Government will not shy away from further action if required, and will consider all levers available to us if these quality reforms do not result in the improvements we seek. Our higher education system is admired across many countries, and these measures will ensure that it continues to be. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.

Today’s statement tells us several stories about this Government. It tells a story about their priorities: why universities, and why now? It tells a story about their analysis: what they think is wrong and what they think is not. It tells a story about their competence: why these changes, when their own regulator has used a different approach for so long? It tells a story about their prejudice, about why they continue to reinforce a binary choice for young people: either academic or vocational, university or apprenticeship. Above all, it tells a story about values—about the choice to put caps on the aspirations and ambitions of our young people; about Ministers for whom opportunity is for their children, but not for other people’s children; about a Government whose only big idea for our world-leading universities is to put up fresh barriers to opportunity, anxious to keep young people in their place. It tells you everything you need to know about the Tories that this is their priority for our young people.

This is the Tories’ priority when we are in the middle of an urgent crisis in this country; when families are struggling to make ends meet; when patients are facing the biggest waiting lists in NHS history; when children are going to school in buildings that Ministers themselves acknowledge are “very likely” to collapse; and when a spiral of low productivity, low growth, and low wages under the Tories is holding Britain back. It is because the Prime Minister is weak and he is in hock to his Back Benchers that we are not seeing action on those important priorities. Instead, after more than 13 years in power, the Government have shown what they really think of our universities, which are famous across the world, are core to so many of our regional economies and were essential to our pandemic response: that they are not a public good, but a political battleground.

The Government’s concept of a successful university course, based on earnings, is not just narrow but limiting. I ask the Secretary of State briefly to consider the case of the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak). The Prime Minister has a degree in politics from one of our leading universities, yet his Government lost control of almost 50 councils this year, he was the second choice of his own party, and now he is on track to fail to deliver on the pledges he set himself publicly. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Prime Minister’s degree was in any sense a high-value course?

Let us be clear what today’s announcement is really about. Many of our most successful newer universities—the fruits of the determination of successive Governments, Labour and Conservative, to spread opportunity in this country—often draw more students from their local communities. Many of those areas are far from London, far from existing concentrations of graduate jobs. Many of those students come from backgrounds where few in their family, if any, will have had the chance to go to university. Many of those young people benefit from extra support when they arrive at university to ensure they succeed. We on the Labour Benches welcome the success of those universities in widening participation and welcoming more young people into higher education, yet today, the Secretary of State is telling those young people—including those excited to be finishing their studies this year—that this Government believe their hard work counts for nothing. Can the Secretary of State be absolutely clear with the House, and tell us which of those universities’ courses she considers to be of low value?

The Secretary of State is keen to trumpet her party’s record on apprenticeships, but let me set out what this Government’s record really is. Since 2015-16, apprenticeship starts among under-19s have dropped by 41%, and apprentice achievements in that age group are down by 57%. Since the Secretary of State entered this place, the number of young people achieving an apprenticeship at any level has more than halved, failing a generation of young people desperate to take on an apprenticeship.

Lastly and most importantly, the values that this Government have set out today are clear: the Conservatives are saying to England’s young people that opportunity is not for them and that choice is not for them. The bizarre irony of a Conservative Government seeking to restrict freedom and restrict choices seems entirely lost on them. Labour will shatter the class ceiling. We will ensure that young people believe that opportunity is for them. Labour is the party of opportunity, aspiration and freedom. Let us be clear, too, that young people want to go to university not merely to get on financially, but for the chance to join the pursuit of learning, to explore ideas and undertake research that benefits us all. That chance and that opportunity matter too. Our children deserve better. They deserve a Government whose most important mission will be to break down the barriers to opportunity and to build a country where background is no barrier. They deserve a Labour Government.

As usual, the hon. Lady has more words than actions. None of those actions was put in place either in Wales, where Labour is running the education system, or in the UK when it was running it in England. We have always made the deliberate choice of quality over quantity, and this is a story of a consistent drive for quality, whether that is through my right hon. Friend the Schools Minister having driven up school standards, so that we are the best in the west for reading and fourth best in the world, or through childcare, revolutionising the apprenticeship system—none of that existed before we put it in place—and technical education and higher education.

I was an other people’s child: I was that kid who left school at 16, who went to a failing comprehensive school in Knowsley. I relied on the business, and the college and the university that I went to. I did not know their brand images and I knew absolutely nobody who had ever been there. I put my trust in that company, and luckily it did me very well. Not all universities and not all courses have the trusted brand image of Oxford and Cambridge, which I think is where the hon. Lady went, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I have worked with many leaders all over the world in my many years in business, and the Prime Minister is a world-class leader.

On apprenticeships, it is a case of quality always over quantity. What we found, and this is why I introduced the quality standards, is that, yes, the numbers were higher, but many of the people did not realise they were on an apprenticeship, many of the apprenticeships lasted less than 12 months and for many of them there was zero off-the-job training. They were apprenticeships in name only, which is what the Labour party will be when it comes to standards for education.

I thank the Secretary of State. Those of us with long memories know that we either ration places by number or we give people choice. If she is giving people the choice of being able to discriminate between the courses and universities on offer, I congratulate her, as I do especially on the lifetime learning and the degree apprenticeship expansion, which has already happened, with more to come.

However, can I also speak up for those who either got fourth-class degrees or failed to take a degree at all, including two of the three Governors of the Bank of England who went to King’s and who came out without a degree? Rabi Tagore left university, and many other poets, painters, teachers or ministers of religion—whether rabbis, imams or ministers in the Christian Church—do not show up highly on the earnings scale, but they might show up highly in their contributions to society. Can my right hon. Friend please make sure that she does not let an algorithm rate colleges, courses or universities?

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I very much agree that this is about choice—the lifelong loan entitlement, degree apprenticeships and all of the other choices—and about people understanding that there are many different routes to success in life. We have asked the Office for Students to look at earnings, because I realise that is difficult and that some jobs will not earn people more. However, for his information, five years after graduating from some courses, people are earning less than £18,000. That is less than the minimum wage, and it is not acceptable.

In relation to low-value degrees, an example of the quality provisions we have introduced for the Office for Students is B3, which is about: whether students continue in their degree, because clearly if they drop out, it is not of much value; whether they complete their degree, because clearly if they do not complete it, it is of zero value; and whether they get a job or progress into higher education afterwards. Those are the three quality measures we look at. Right now, the Office for Students is looking at 18 providers and two specific areas—business and management, and computer science—because there is a massive range in what people can expect to earn from jobs having followed one course or others, all of which seem to have the same name. There are quality issues, and we want to make sure that they are thoroughly investigated. The Office for Students is doing that.

I welcome the focus on both choice and policy that my right hon. Friend has focused on in her statement. The Education Committee will want to look at the detail of the proposals, and at the kind of courses that are affected. It is crucial that in launching this approach, she recognises that all our universities are selling a premium product. All our universities are high-quality institutions, and it would be wrong to discriminate against different universities in the system when, after all, they are all funded on the same fundamental basis.

I agree with my hon. Friend and I am proud of our university sector. It is much admired all over the world, but we must ensure that specific courses in all institutions offer the quality that people expect. When people invest in these degrees they will come out with £40,000 or £50,000 of debt, and it is important first that they know that, and secondly that they know what they are investing in, and what return they will get on that investment.

May I beg the Secretary of State not to throw the baby out with the bath water? Everybody wants good-quality degrees, and we all want degrees to lead to good, fulfilling occupations, but some of us are worried about the comments that were made in an interview this morning by the Secretary of State’s ministerial colleague that we have four or five of the best universities in the world, as if all the other 120 universities were rubbish. That is not the case. We have diverse universities and great courses. I ask her please not to throw the baby out with the bath water and do great damage to our higher education system.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have an excellent university system with excellent universities. Four out of the top 10 are world-class, but if we broaden that to the top 100, many others would appear in that list. We have a good university sector, which is why it is most important that we protect the brand image. It is also very popular abroad, and every year more than 600,000 students choose to come here, which is more than to almost every other country in the world. Why? It is because they know they will get quality, and it is very important for the sector that that quality is maintained.

I know the Secretary of State takes a more than purely transactional view of higher education, and I am with the Father of the House in hoping that in her reforms there will be protections for degrees that do not offer an immediate commercial advantage, such as theology, philosophy or the study of poetry. I also hope that within her reforms there will be protections to allow universities to innovate and introduce new courses. Our university sector has obviously been at the forefront of driving forward British intellectualism and thinking, and not allowing universities to experiment with courses that may not immediately fulfil the criteria that she is proposing, or indeed forbidding or deterring them from doing so, would set us back in world terms. Will she reassure us that innovation will still be encouraged?

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that he did in this area. Yes, I understand the difficulty of choosing a blunt number or tool. That is why I have asked the Office for Students to consider how such things could be used and what approaches we need to ensure that we do not throw the baby out with the bath water, or end up with unintended consequences. On innovation, I am absolutely encouraging all our universities to innovate, working with businesses. The pace of technological change across the world and what is to come in the future is immense, and I want our universities to work with our further education colleges, training providers, businesses and others, to ensure that we innovate and give everybody the best opportunities for the future.

There is no clearer sign of a Government who are out of ideas and have run out of steam than when they re-announce policies and badge them as new. The Office for Students already has these powers, and has already capped four specific providers. Rather than putting down our universities and capping our young people’s aspirations, why does the Secretary of State not invest in them by restoring maintenance grants, and finally signing the dotted line on Horizon membership?

Not all the things I have brought forward today have already been announced. The information on foundation degrees is new, and the work we are doing with the OfS is also new. We have asked the OfS to consider the impact of recruitment limits, and how those can be introduced. I personally think this is an important set of reforms. We need to make sure that we have access to these fantastic courses at our universities so that through programmes—such as Horizon, when we complete those negotiations—we can continue to offer the very best in science from this country.

I very much welcome this statement to limit the number of students that universities can recruit to courses that are failing. The Secretary of State has my full support. Can she tell me whether this measure will also apply to foreign students? At the very least, will foreign students be barred from bringing dependants with them to do these courses?

The quality of the courses on offer applies to everybody. If we change the quality for domestic students, it will then be the same quality for international students, which is important because of the size of the international student sector, which brings about £25 billion to £30 billion to our economy every year. We have already addressed the issue of dependants for taught master’s courses in our recent changes to migration visas.

The Secretary of State has confirmed that the Office for Students already had the powers to enforce on student outcome provisions, so this announcement is just narrow politicking. Hidden in the UCAS figures last week was the fact that home student applications are falling in this country. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this Government’s policy is now one of narrowing participation?

Absolutely not, no. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has asked this question, because our policy is about widening participation and making sure that education is high-quality. It is also about making sure that there are more degree apprenticeships. There are now 180,000, which did not exist before. There are now 180,000 more people who can do what I did, as the only degree apprentice in the House of Commons. It is a fantastic route into the workplace. We also have higher technical qualifications and boot camps. There is so much investment that has all happened under this Conservative Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), missed the opportunity to condemn the disgusting and cruel University and College Union marking boycott? Will my right hon. Friend use these reforms to protect young people to ensure that this never happens again and that universities such as Cambridge and Exeter can issue degrees?

It is important. Young people have suffered already a lot during covid. They have invested in their degree and put all the hard work in. It is only right that they should have their degrees marked. This is a dispute between universities and their lecturers, but we are urging them to make sure they prioritise all those who will be graduating this year.

I welcome the announcement today, because for far too long, some universities cynically sold courses to students even though they knew the outcomes were poor in qualifications and employment opportunities. Does the Minister accept that it was her party that allowed the increase in fees, was aware of the mismatch sometimes between courses and the needs of the economy, and did nothing to cap those courses? Does she not recognise that some people will be rather cynical that the tsunami of announcements we are getting now is more to do with the by-elections, rather than the ability to deliver between now and a general election?

Absolutely not. I have been working on this policy with many former Ministers, even since I was the Apprenticeships and Skills Minister. We have been working on this for a long time to make sure we get it right. When a working-class kid who will come out with £50,000 of debt puts their trust in an institution, they have to put their trust in the system and it is vital that the system delivers for them. If they have £50,000 of debt and no better job prospects, that is not a system delivering for them.

Would it not benefit university courses’ quality more if university administrators were paid a lot less and university lecturers were paid rather more?

My right hon. Friend puts his finger on a debate that is going on in our universities right now, and I know it is part of the discussions between university lecturers and university management.

I have been around the block—Oxbridge, red brick, ex-poly—long enough to know that this statement reeks of academic snobbery and desperation. In cultural studies, people can legitimately analyse Mickey Mouse as a subject of academic inquiry—I have ex-students who did that who are now earning more than any of us in here. When will the Government address the things that our constituents really want to be dealt with, such as crippling student debt and the massively reduced and minimal contact hours that the covid generation got?

The hon. Lady will be delighted about the data that we now have. If students having done those courses go on to earn more—I do not know what her judgment is on those institutions—that will be absolutely fantastic; that is all that we expect. I have two business and management degrees and know business well, having spent 30 years in it, but if people cannot get a good business job after doing a business and management degree, I would suggest that was not a good-quality degree. One must recognise that.

My right hon. Friend is right to celebrate Britain’s international higher education success, but does she agree that any changes made must recognise the tremendous success of the 2,000 workers at the University of Bolton, which has shot up The Guardian’s best university guide league table now to be placed in the top 40?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I know that he is a big champion of the University of Bolton, which I was delighted to meet recently. It is quite interesting that a lot of former polytechnics and newer universities are working and collaborating so well with businesses, offering more degree apprenticeships and more flexible courses, and storming up the league tables.

I am concerned that many university degrees that lead young people into the creative sector will be squeezed under the Government’s plans. Industry leaders have warned that limiting student numbers based on graduate earnings fails to account for the working patterns of graduates in the creative industries, and particularly the arts, where people do not immediately earn high salaries. The salaries in those professions do not reflect their importance to national wellbeing and the contribution that the arts make to our national income. What assessment has the Department for Education made of the damage that this latest policy will do to those arts and humanities subjects that have already been relentlessly cut back under Conservative-led Governments?

I am a huge supporter of our creative and arts industries, which are among our largest, and we are very successful in them. I work with them a lot to ensure that we can deliver even broader apprenticeship routes, because they are difficult industries to get into. I have asked the Office for Students to consider how to do this reform to ensure that we consider things like the creative arts and other routes, which sometimes take longer to get into but offer a different aspect of learning. That is why we have not just introduced a blunt tool. I will continue to work with our fantastic creative sector.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Department on their focus on excellence. This morning, I attended the graduation ceremony of students from Anglia Ruskin University in Chelmsford. It was so moving, because, for the first time in history, students graduated as medical doctors in Essex. Our investment five years ago in five new medical schools across the country is a shining example of a Conservative Government investing for future needs. Will she work with me to try to double the number of medical students and encourage a degree apprenticeship for doctors, and will she congratulate our new doctors?

I know that my right hon. Friend is a huge champion of Anglia Ruskin University. I am delighted about the number of medical doctors and the new medical schools, which, as she said, were introduced under this Government. When I was the Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, one of the last things I did, and which I am most proud about, was to get a medical doctors apprenticeship standard built, and I am delighted that that is being rolled out from September. I look forward to Anglia Ruskin offering that as well.

I was the first in my family to get a university degree—I hope that I am not the last. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Tory party is the party of the blockers—blocking aspiration and opportunity in higher education as well as the building of affordable houses?

No, I think that the hon. Member has got it completely wrong. Under the Conservatives, an 18-year-old from a disadvantaged background is 86% more likely to go to university than they were in 2010. Under Labour, the richest students were seven times more likely to go to university than the poorest 40% in society.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s plans, but I want higher education reform to go further. A recent paper by the New Conservatives included an excellent suggestion to extend the closure of the student dependant route to students enrolled on one-year research master’s degrees. Would she support that?

My hon. Friend knows that we have already looked at that in careful detail. It is kept under review, and we recently made changes to the taught course route.

Of course students deserve high-quality education at university. They also deserve to be cared for during what is, for most of them, their first time away from home. Does the Secretary of State agree with me, and with the families of young people who have tragically taken their own lives at university, that higher education institutions should do more to look out for and protect those students, including by having a statutory duty of care?

I completely agree. That is why the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), has asked all universities to sign up to the mental health charter.

A key stakeholder is the British taxpayer, who ends up picking up a £1 billion bill for people who cannot pay back their student debt. Bricklayers, roofers and carpenters—there are not enough people in Britain to do those jobs. Does the Education Secretary agree that we should promote those opportunities and routes in our school system? No one should turn up their nose at those jobs; they offer a good pathway to a good wage, and we should promote them.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Lots of people are surprised by how much they can earn in some of those trades, whether welding, bricklaying or plumbing. There have been, and there will always be, fabulous apprenticeships and full-time courses to make sure everyone can reach those careers.

The most important factor in determining graduate outcomes remains the student’s socioeconomic background. The average student from a working-class background goes on to earn less after graduating than their wealthier peers with the same degree. Does the Minister concede that the Government’s insistence on degrading the value of degrees and restricting access to higher education will only compound those deep structural inequalities that define our education system? Does the Minister accept that many young people in my constituency will consider those plans an attempt to put them back in their place and out of university?

I was in exactly the same place as the people in his constituency—in fact, in the same city—so I do not accept that at all. We are upgrading the options for people from working-class backgrounds and upgrading the quality of degrees. I would not be here if I had not had the options I had, which included an apprenticeship, FE college and a part-time degree at Liverpool John Moores University. That was high quality. Everybody who puts their trust in the system should get the same.

I support my right hon. Friend’s comments on the UCU marking ban, which is so hurtful to students. The latest UCAS data shows a record number of 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged areas accepted on to a course, and that the entry rate gap between the most advantaged and disadvantaged areas now stands at 2.1, a record low. That is great, but there is more work to be done. Will my right hon. Friend continue to focus on closing that gap?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are continuing to close that gap, and we have made unbelievable progress—more in the last 13 years than ever in this country. We will continue to make sure that working class people get access to all high-quality routes into the workplace.

The Government should address the reasons why some courses are struggling, not the consequences. Higher education funding is in crisis, and that is having an impact on the function of universities, not least the post-1992 universities. Will the review by the Office for Students look at the higher education funding model? How will it address the real symptoms that she is talking about?

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, but at the moment the OfS has 18 providers under investigation for poor quality. There are many more providers, and we have a standard fee. It will look at contextual aspects such as demographics, socioeconomics and mature students. It looks at all that in context, but there are 18 providers out of a much larger number.

The Secretary of State has my full support for the measures she has announced this afternoon. On that key mission of ensuring that students pay a fair price and get a good return for their university education, does she agree that more institutions should follow the example of the University of Buckingham, which offers fantastic two-year undergraduate degrees with staggered start points throughout the year?

Yes. The University of Buckingham has taken an excellent leadership position and its two-year degree is very much welcomed by many people. We will introduce the lifelong loan entitlement, which will revolutionise how and when people go to university, what type of courses they take, for what period of time, and how they make those decisions over their entire career and lifetime.

Many of my constituents study or have obtained degrees from Harper Adams University, just up the road. Those degrees are at the cutting edge of agriculture and the key challenge facing all of us, which is how to feed the planet in a sustainable way. Their degrees and the likely careers they go into are classified by the Office for National Statistics as “unprofessional”. Will the Secretary of State consider reviewing the data and taking a really hard look at how those occupations are classified, because some of my constituents would miss out on a really important opportunity to do a high-class and important degree?

I thank the hon. Lady. Harper Adams University is a fantastic university. It does a fantastic range of courses, more and more looking at agri-tech, the technology within agriculture. I am sure it offers fantastic high quality to its students. There have been discussions about the professions and how the data is organised, so I will look at that. A number have raised that concern, not just those in agriculture.

It seems absolutely right to me that those who choose to go to university should expect a good-quality, good-value education they can put to good use throughout their lives. My right hon. Friend mentions apprenticeships. Will she say a little more about what we can do to ensure parity of esteem between degree and apprenticeship routes?