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Topical Questions

Volume 736: debated on Monday 17 July 2023

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.