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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 738: debated on Monday 23 October 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

School Funding

1. What progress her Department has made on ensuring equality of school funding through the national funding formula. (906621)

13. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of core school funding for the 2023-24 academic year. (906634)

The Government introduced fairness into school funding. Under Labour, we got disproportionately inflated school budgets in places such as London, while constituencies such as mine were underfunded for over a decade. It was the Conservatives who introduced the national funding formula, which funds schools fairly, objectively and, most importantly, based on the needs of pupils, not political ideology. Not only that: this year, school budgets are up by over £3.9 billion, and next year schools will be funded at their highest level in history, at £59.6 billion.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Worcestershire County Council languishes among the weakest 10 local authorities for funding per pupil. As a result, a lot of pressure has been put on other budgets, including the high needs and special educational needs and disabilities budget. Worcestershire now faces a deficit of more than £20 million in those budgets. Can she do something to help counties such as Worcestershire to meet those important demands for our young people?

I am conscious of the pressures that many local authorities have faced on their high needs budgets. Nationally, high needs funding is set to increase by 60% between 2019-20 and 2024-25. Next year, Worcestershire will receive more than £89 million for its high needs budget. The Department is also supporting individual local authorities to tackle financial sustainability through two programmes: the Safety Valve programme for those with the highest deficits, and Delivering Better Value in SEND, which will help local authorities, including Worcestershire, to develop plans to reform their systems to reach a sustainable footing.

The recent accounting error by the Secretary of State’s Department will mean a cut of more than £2.5 million for schools in Bristol. That money could have been spent on breakfast clubs, SEND provision, mental health support, or even such basics as paying the energy bills. The Prime Minister said in this conference speech that his main funding priority in every spending review from now on will be education, but he is cutting school budgets now. Does the Secretary of State not realise the impact that will have on schools, whose budgets have already been cut to the bone?

I take the error in the July notional national funding formula figures very seriously, but it is important to note that schools do not receive notification of their actual budget until February-March. The Department acted quickly to correct the error—well before schools set their final budgets. There is no cut: £59.6 billion, which I have talked about many times from this Dispatch Box, is the number that schools will be funded at next year. At my direction, Peter Wyman, the chair of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, will lead a rigorous independent external review of the Department’s quality assurance processes.

I am grateful to the permanent secretary for writing to the Committee as soon as that recent funding error was identified, and for her apology for the concern that it caused. Although no actual money was lost to schools as a result, it reflects the complexity of the current system. We have promised a fair formula for funding, which will flow directly to schools. When do Ministers expect to be able to legislate to put that in place?

It is our intention to legislate, but I cannot give a date for that at the Dispatch Box. I will keep my hon. Friend informed.

Despite North West Leicestershire delivering consistently the highest economic growth in the country, with the resulting tax revenue benefits to the Treasury, my constituents have been blighted by very low per-pupil funding for a long time, as Leicestershire has bumped along the bottom of the funding table for decades. Does the Secretary of State have any words of comfort for my constituents?

The introduction of the NFF will direct resources according to need. That has meant that funding has been redistributed to catch up with these changes. Those with the highest number of pupils with additional needs will also be targeted via the NFF.

Students: Cost of Living

This year and last year, the Government have provided £94 billion of cost of living support in England. In education, more than a third of children get free school meals. University tuition fees have been frozen and we have provided £276 million of student premium to help the most disadvantaged students.[Official Report, 25 October 2023, Vol. 738, c. 5MC.]

During my latest meeting with student leaders in Canterbury, they told me that, often, new students will visit the food bank, the Campus Pantry, before they have even unpacked their bags or settled in. In the 2021-22 academic year, 45 students visited; by 2022-23, that number had risen to 301—a 650% rise in regular food bank users. They expect a similar rise this academic year. What will the Government do to help all those, including students and staff on campus, who are forced to turn to food banks?

I know the hon. Lady cares deeply about the welfare of her students. We are doing everything we can to help students with the cost of living. I mentioned the £276 million. One of her universities, Canterbury Christ Church University, provides a £600 bursary to students. Every family has received from the Government on average £3,300 for energy bills and other support. We are trying to be fair to the taxpayer, but fair to students and ensure the most disadvantaged are helped.

While the cost of food, heating and rent has rocketed, the value of the student maintenance loan has fallen by £1,500 in real terms since 2020-21. Recent research by the University of Nottingham Students’ Union revealed that the cost of living crisis is affecting students’ education, and their physical and mental health. It found that almost one in 10 students had a weekly budget of £20 or less after rent, and one in five had a weekly budget of £20 or less after rent and bills. Thirty-seven per cent had considered leaving university because of the difficulties they faced paying for essentials. Does the Minister think that these are acceptable conditions for students to be struggling under?

It is precisely because of the figures the hon. Lady sets out that we are helping students, with £276 million to try to ensure we help the most disadvantaged students. Her own university—she mentioned Nottingham University—gives a £1,000 bursary to disadvantaged students. We are also giving up to £90 billion of extra help to disadvantaged families, we have frozen tuition fees and we look at loan repayments if family incomes fall below 15%, so we are doing everything possible to support the most disadvantaged to get higher education.[Official Report, 25 October 2023, Vol. 738, c. 6MC.]

As we have heard, this is a very serious issue. Recent research from the National Union of Students shows that almost one in five full-time students work more than 20 hours per week alongside their studies—they are working even more than in previous years—and 40% of students say that work is having a negative impact on their studies. Students are clearly struggling with the Conservatives’ cost of living crisis. How does the Minister expect students to balance their studies and employment to pay their bills? Does he acknowledge that this is now forcing many students out of higher education?

Actually, the opposite is true. We have a record number of students going to university. Disadvantaged students are 71% more likely to go to university now than they were in 2010. We have a huge package of support. I have mentioned the £276 million for disadvantaged students. We are doing everything we can to help disadvantaged students. The hon. Gentleman criticises the money we are giving, but does not come up with a figure of his own. Warm words butter no parsnips.

The Minister mentions some things that are maybe trying to help these students, but recent Higher Education Policy Institute analysis shows that students who previously received free school meals are less likely to complete their degree and those who do are less likely to get a first or a 2:1. Support cannot stop once they get to university. Will he detail what support he is giving those students at every stage of their journey to make sure they really do have the same opportunities as those from more privileged backgrounds?

Many universities offer bursaries to students—I highlighted two examples to previous questioners—and we are doing everything possible to ensure that students who do courses get good skills and good jobs at the end. That is the purpose of our higher education reforms, which, as I understand it, the SNP opposed.

Maths Standards: Primary Education

4. What steps she is taking to increase the number of primary school children meeting expected standards in maths. (906625)

Since 2010, we have reformed the maths curriculum, reflecting international best practice, and introduced a network of maths hubs to boost the quality of teaching. In 2019, primary pupils achieved their highest ever score in the latest TIMSS—trends in international mathematics and science study—international survey, and Ofsted recently found “a resounding, positive shift” in primary maths education.

When will the Government learn that early years matter? One in four children leave primary school without core maths skills and never catch up. Does the Minister agree that, instead of forcing everyone to study maths to 18, we should focus on early years and encourage a more positive attitude to learning maths, rather than leave it hanging over pupils?

In fact, we are focusing on both. We have reformed the early years foundation stage to ensure that there is more interaction between adults and pupils in that stage, with a focus on numeracy and English as well. In 2011, we took the Singapore primary curriculum as the basis of our primary maths, and we introduced the multiplication tables check for year 4 pupils. An increasing number of pupils are now fluent in their times tables, in a way that generations of children in the past have not been.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr Sharma) and the Minister are both right to stress the importance of maths, but what is vital to all good teaching is proper school place planning. On the Isle of Wight, councillors are proving unwilling to deliver, or incapable of delivering, a school place plan despite their legal duty. Will the Minister work with me to ensure that the Isle of Wight Council acts to fulfil its legal duties soon—

Order. The hon. Member must try to keep to the main question. He really is drifting. He must return to the subject of primary education.

Okay. I am sorry, Sir. Thank you.

Will the Minister work with me to ensure that the Isle of Wight Council acts to fulfil its legal obligations? At present it is letting down parents, pupils and teachers.

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We are aware that the Isle of Wight is experiencing a decline in the number of primary school children, which is creating surplus places. The Department is monitoring the situation closely, and the south east regional director will be meeting the local authority next month to discuss this and other concerns that we have about the Isle of Wight.

Pupil Absences

Improving attendance is one of my top priorities. Our attendance hub now supports 800 schools, benefiting more than 400,000 pupils; 86% of schools subscribe to our attendance data tool to spot at-risk pupils; and we have specialist programmes helping some of the most vulnerable, including children with social workers, children with special educational needs, and young people facing particular issues such as mental ill health. Our approach is starting to turn the tide—recent data show that 380,000 fewer children were persistently not at school last year—but absence levels are still too high, and that remains my No. 1 priority.

As the Secretary of State has said, progress in reducing persistent absence is not as fast as anyone would like, and in places such as Blackpool the attendance monitoring pilots will be crucial. However, according to the charity School-Home Support, which has been working in Blackpool for 18 months, there is a need to focus on more than just individual pupils, and the “whole family support” model is also crucial. Will the Secretary of State meet me, along with representatives of School-Home Support, to hear about the pertinent lessons that they have learnt in Blackpool, which contains the most deprived neighbourhoods in the country? If we cannot get it right in Blackpool, where else are we going to get it right?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend: School-Home Support does incredible work in Blackpool. The Government’s supporting families programme, backed by £200 million, focuses on attendance by supporting the whole family. Blackpool is also one of our 24 priority education investment areas, with six family support workers helping 11 schools to improve attendance. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these issues further.

It is not uncommon for kids who have had a brain injury, particularly a significant brain injury, to receive plenty of care and support at school immediately after the event, but, some six to nine months later, to suffer real cognitive problems. They may suffer from depression or anxiety, they may sometimes be unable to inhibit themselves, and they may stop turning up for school and start getting into trouble. Can the Secretary of State commission a specific piece of work on providing protection and support for those children and their families, who desperately need it?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, he and I both worked on this topic when I had a different role. Of course we want all children to be helped to get into school, because they can only benefit from this fantastic education if they are there, and of course schools should make adjustments if children need them. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools will be happy to meet him as well in order to understand further what more we can do in this regard.

SEND Provision

7. What steps her Department is taking to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (906628)

10. What steps her Department is taking to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (906631)

15. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs in Walsall South constituency. (906636)

16. What steps her Department is taking to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (906637)

In March, we published our improvement plan to transform support for children with special educational needs, and last month we launched nine regional change programme partnerships to drive reform. By 2024-25, we will have increased high needs funding by 60% since 2019-20, and we have approved the opening of 78 special free schools.

Local authorities have spent nearly a quarter of a billion pounds fighting parents at SEND tribunals since 2014, yet they have a failure rate of over 90%. What steps is the Department taking to overhaul that process, which has caused SEND parents in Northampton South unnecessary distress?

My hon. Friend is right to say that tribunals are costly and stressful, but it is important to say that most education, health and care needs assessments and plans are concluded without a tribunal hearing. We will be introducing new national standards, strengthened mediation and greater system-wide accountability to give families the support they need earlier and reduce the number of tribunals.

I was one of 31 MPs from across the Chamber who signed the f40 letter to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor urging significant investment in SEN. Will my hon. Friend, behind the scenes at least, endorse that campaign and also look at how we can reduce the reliance on education, health and care plans, which are a barrier to so many young people getting the education they need?

It is probably worth saying that I am an f40 MP myself, and I met the group just last week to hear its concerns. On my hon. Friend’s point about EHCPs, through the reform plan we are working to get parents the support they need for their child at an earlier stage so that they do not always need an EHCP to get that support.

There is a crisis in funding for SEND in Walsall South. In Old Church Primary, 78 pupils have special needs, which is 19% of the school total. How can the Minister target the funding to the schools that really need it? Does he agree that when Ofsted inspects, it should take into account children with special needs in schools such as Old Church so that these are mitigating factors?

The right hon. Lady makes an important point about the role of Ofsted and ensuring that it assesses that provision. It is worth saying that there will have been a 36% per-head increase in Walsall between 2021-22 and 2024-25, but I would be happy to meet her to discuss the issue further.

Thanks to Government support, local Conservatives in the London Borough of Bexley have secured an incredible £39.5 million to expand and improve SEND provision in our borough. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that local authorities, charities, schools and families work closely together to maximise the educational impact of this Government-backed funding?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to his campaigning on this issue and to the work of Bexley council. It is absolutely the case that people should be engaging not just with schools and families but with local charities, which are often best placed to understand the needs of families and their children.

Families in Selby and Ainsty have been waiting nearly half a decade for spades in the ground at a new SEND school for the Selby area. Will the Minister meet me to ensure that there are no further delays to this vital project?

The hon. Gentleman and I have exchanged letters about this matter. We remain absolutely committed to the school and I would be happy to meet him to discuss it further.

The SEND crisis extends to Devon, and my postbag is full of correspondence from parents trying to get their children the educational provision they need. It has got so bad that in some cases children are being taught in school cupboards, and Devon has appointed a SEND champion to its cabinet. What steps is the Department taking to help boost SEND services in rural areas such as mine?

There has been a 30% increase in the per-head funding to schools in Devon for their special educational needs provision, and the whole thrust of our reform plan is to make the system work better for parents and families and get the support for their children at the stage when they need it.[Official Report, 25 October 2023, Vol. 738, c. 6MC.]

“Lose, lose, lose”, costing a “fortune” and not providing “the right service”. Those are not my words but those of the Secretary of State describing the SEND system over which her Government have been presiding for the last 13 years. Will the Minister tell the House when he expects the plans that the Government have announced for SEND to make a difference to the long waiting times and lack of support experienced by so many families across the country?

We have already begun the reform programme and have just launched the nine change partnerships, which are already starting to make a difference to the provision. I would just say to the hon. Lady that this is yet another area where the Labour party has absolutely no policies whatsoever.[Official Report, 25 October 2023, Vol. 738, c. 7MC.]

Higher Technical Qualifications: Uptake

We are revolutionising our skills offering by introducing 172 higher technical qualifications at more than 140 providers at levels 4 and 5. This includes £115 million for providers and £300 million for 21 institutes of technology. I note that the Opposition want to rebadge institutes of technology as technical colleges of excellence. In our view, all our colleges are places of technical excellence.

I welcome the Government’s plan to introduce a new advanced British standard to help to remove the artificial divide between technical and academic qualifications. Given that the need for technical skills exists right across the United Kingdom, can my right hon. Friend confirm that this new qualification will live up to its name and be truly British, like the T-level before it, and therefore be available to education settings in Scotland that choose it?

My hon. Friend is a champion of science, technology, engineering, maths and skills, and he will know that education is devolved. The devolved Administrations are responsible for their education systems, but the Department for Education is working with the Governments of the UK. We engaged at both official and ministerial level when the advanced British standard was announced. We look forward to continued engagement as it is hopefully adopted across the United Kingdom.

I thank the Minister for his response and his positivity. I echo the request of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) to ensure that all the benefits of higher education are present not only here on the mainland but across the whole United Kingdom. I know that is the Minister’s wish, but can he confirm that, when it comes to higher technical qualifications, girls and ladies will have the same opportunities as young fellas and young men?

I thank my hon. Friend—he is my hon. Friend—for his question. We are absolutely committed to making sure that women take up higher technical qualifications, and we are doing everything we can to support them with careers advice to ensure that more take up STEM subjects in particular.

Increasing the take-up of higher technical qualifications is desperately needed, with low take-up leading to persistent skills gaps and holding back economic growth. Colleges, which we were proud to celebrate during Love Our Colleges Week, tell us of issues affecting take-up, including a lack of quality careers advice, challenges with stable staffing and late course approvals. With the UK seeing only 10% of adults whose highest qualification is between level 3 and level 6—the sixth lowest rate in the G7—should not the Government address their cuts to careers advice, as Labour will, so that young people do not miss out because they hear about opportunities far too late?

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her new position, but I genuinely do not know what planet she has been living on these past few years. We introduced higher technical qualifications and are transforming qualifications across the country. We introduced T-levels and spent £90 million to transform careers advice. Ninety per cent of schools are in a careers hub, and we have the National Careers Service. We are doing a lot of work to support careers, and we are spending something like £3 million to ensure that apprenticeships and skills are taught in schools up and down the country—more than 2,000 schools and 680,000 pupils. We are doing huge amounts on careers, and we are the people who transformed skills in our country.

Music Education in Schools

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment as shadow Minister for music and tourism.

The Government expect every school to teach music for at least an hour a week, supported by our music hub network, including the Greater Manchester hub led by the Bolton Music Service, and backed by £25 million of capital for instruments and a new £10,000 bursary for trainee music teachers.

Last month, Ofsted reported:

“There remains a divide between the opportunities for children and young people whose families can afford to pay for music tuition and for those who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

It also said that

“half the primary schools visited did not…offer any instrumental or vocal lessons”,

and that what lessons existed were being taught by non-specialist teachers in two thirds of primary schools. This is a damning reflection of the substantial decline in the provision of music education in England over which Conservative-led Governments have presided. What urgent action will the Government take in response to these findings?

From September next year, every music hub will be required to support music tuition for disadvantaged pupils. We are investing £2 million in a music progression programme in education investment areas to support up to 1,000 pupils to learn an instrument. From 2018-19 to 2022-23, between 96.4% and 94.7% of all hours taught in music were taught by a teacher with a relevant post-A-level qualification. There are now 7,184 full-time music teachers in our secondary schools, which is up from 7,000 last year.

XYZ Music Academy teaches over 2,000 children across Buckinghamshire on a weekly basis, employing 18 tutors. Its online primary school music curriculum “XYZ Primary” helps primary schools with smaller budgets to deliver music provision to a high standard, adhering to the model music curriculum and Ofsted requirements. Will my right hon. Friend visit XYZ to learn more from this innovative small business that could be adopted more widely across the country?

I would be delighted to visit XYZ. Music in schools is a personal passion for me; I want to see more of it and a better quality of it. In 2021, we published the model music curriculum, which is designed to help primary and secondary schools to improve their music education. It took two years to produce and was written by a panel of music education practitioners, including Ed Watkins, head of music at the West London Free School, and Julian Lloyd Webber; the panel was chaired by Baroness Fleet. I would love to discuss that curriculum and learn more about XYZ.

School Buildings

Well-maintained school buildings are a priority for this Government, and we will spend whatever it takes to keep children and staff safe. We have allocated £1.8 billion in 2023-24—£15 billion since 2015—to improve the condition of school buildings, and we are working to address reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete. We are transforming hundreds of schools across the country through our school rebuilding programme.

The excellent Lakes School at Troutbeck Bridge serves the communities of Windermere and Ambleside and those further afield with 11-to-18 education, but it is widely acknowledged that the school needs a full rebuild because the buildings are well beyond their sell-by date. Because of the unique history of the site, on which I am happy to brief the Minister separately, it is very likely that we will have significant charitable and private funds to help towards a rebuild, as long as there is some Government support as well. Will he agree to meet me and the school leaders to talk about how we can make sure that a brilliant school has a bright future?

Absolutely; I will be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman. We want all our schools, including excellent schools such as the Lakes School in the Lake district, to have the best-quality school buildings. That is our priority, and I will be delighted to meet him and teachers at the school to discuss how to make it happen in his constituency.

This Conservative Government will fund a new school to replace the flood-prone Tipton St John primary school. However, that can happen only once a suitable alternative site is found. Will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to speed up the process so that pupils have a safe new school as soon as possible?

We are working actively with the diocese of Exeter and with Devon County Council to identify suitable sites for the school. Site appraisals are due to be completed by the end of this year. Once a site is identified, we will work with the diocese and the council to expedite the acquisition of the site. I fully understand and share my hon. Friend’s desire for urgency in this matter.

Last week, the Government added another 41 schools and colleges to the RAAC list, bringing the total to 214. The Education Secretary claims that children prefer to learn in portacabins, but it is far from a joke when some are still waiting for temporary classrooms, studying from home or in cramped sports halls and dining rooms. Can the Minister confirm the total number of pupils who are already impacted and are expected to be impacted by this chaos? When will all children receive undisrupted face-to-face learning? Surely that is the minimum that a parent can expect for their child.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her first Education questions and her appointment as shadow Schools Minister, although this is not our first exchange since her appointment. She is right: there are 214 schools and colleges with confirmed RAAC, which is an increase from the 173 we announced in September. Of those 214 schools, the pupils at 202, or 94%, are in full-time, face-to-face education, and 12 schools or colleges are offering hybrid face-to-face and remote education. Our objective and our focus is to ensure that schools are supported to put in place immediate measures to enable face-to-face education to continue.

Holiday Activities and Food Programme

14. What recent assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of the holiday activities and food programme. (906635)

The holiday activities and food programme introduced by this Government is hugely important to families up and down the country and supported 685,000 children last summer. We know the positive impacts that these programmes are having on a range of issues, such as by improving attendance. One child in Stoke who attended a HAF programme run by the Kingsland CE Academy increased their school attendance by 32% and is no longer considered to be persistently absent. That is just one example of the wonderful work that HAF programmes do, and there is also strong evidence that they improve health, behaviour and confidence in children.

I have seen at first hand just how brilliant the Government-backed holiday activities and food programmes are for children and young people and their families in Eastbourne. In one magical piece of feedback, a little girl at the Art House café sidled up to me and said, “One day I will own a place just like this,” and I have seen the same energy across the piece. Given that we are hoping that there is a connection between attendance and HAF uptake, what more can we do to provide and promote opportunities for children and young people with SEND, and also for the 11-plus and early teens?

When it launched, HAF was the first summer camp for hundreds of thousands of children—70% had never experienced a holiday club before—and this summer, 4,000 children benefited in East Sussex. HAF is open to children from ages five to 16. Local authorities should meet the needs of all cohorts, including by offering programmes for older children and those with special educational needs. I urge all hon. Members to visit their local HAF over the Christmas recess; they really are heart-warming.

I have visited my local HAF in Washington over the last few summers, and I certainly will if there is one at Christmas. Does the Minister have any plans to extend the scheme further? There is obviously a lot more need than the current HAF schemes can meet, especially with the cost of living crisis.

As I mentioned, 685,000 children were helped just this summer. Our independent evaluation found that around two thirds of the 700,000 children attending overall live in some of the most deprived areas across the country, so we believe we are getting the targeting right. We are very proud of this programme, which we think is a brilliant addition to the landscape, and we want to ensure that it benefits as many people as possible.

Provider Access Legislation

17. Whether her Department has conducted a review of the effectiveness of provider access legislation. (906638)

We are hugely strengthening technical and provider access in schools. We have legislated for pupils to have six encounters with apprentice organisations and technical colleges. Ofsted is looking closely at careers guidance, and the apprentice support and knowledge network is going into over 2,000 schools, supporting 680,000 pupils and encouraging them to take up apprenticeships or other skills offerings.

Colleges in Southport have raised concerns about careers advice opportunities for students with SEND—specifically, about the suitability of the oversight and the supposed added value of these sessions. Will my right hon. Friend detail what steps the Government are taking to ensure that these sessions are personalised better to support SEND students in their transition into employment?

My hon. Friend is a champion for special needs pupils, and he is absolutely right. We need to ensure that special needs pupils have employment opportunities, along with everybody else. We are investing over £18 million over the next three years in supported internship schemes for high special needs 16-to-19 pupils. We have a mentor scheme for disabled apprentices, the Careers & Enterprise Company has put in SEND support to ensure high-quality careers guidance and training, and 82% of SEND schools are now part of careers hubs.

As supportive as I am of this scheme, I do not think that up to six sessions really cuts it. Will the Minister consider a scheme similar to Aimhigher, which was introduced by the previous Labour Government to encourage young people into higher education and down the vocational route? This would give young people mentors who have been through apprenticeship schemes and really get them hooked on the opportunities that vocational education can bring.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. My first speech in the House of Commons was about that very subject. The six encounters that I mentioned are the minimum. Obviously, many schools do more. Only last week, I attended Oasis school in Bristol, and watched students being encouraged to take up apprenticeships and to hold an apprenticeship careers fair. We are doing huge amounts. I mentioned the apprenticeship skills and knowledge network, which is going around schools and encouraging pupils to take up apprenticeships. That involves more than 2,000 schools and 680,000 pupils. We need to do as much as possible to educate students about apprenticeships and to ensure that they have the encounters that he rightly talks about.


This Conservative Government are investing more in childcare than at any other point in our country’s history, ensuring that parents do not have to choose between having a family or having a career. With 30 hours of free childcare on offer from the end of parental leave to the start of school, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston)—I welcome him to his place—is working hard to expand the capacity through new capital investment, more avenues into the workforce and increasing childcare rates.

At a Westminster Hall debate on childcare earlier this year, before the Secretary of State’s proposed changes were announced, I expressed concern that low-income families were facing high childcare costs that might make it sub-economic to return to work. Will she tell me how the changes that she has been making will help prevent that?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Just to remind everybody, under Labour, parents got just 12.5 hours for three and four-year-olds—less than an hour of free childcare per year in office. We will be spending more than £8 billion a year by 2027-28 to fund 30 hours of free childcare for working parents of children aged nine months to the start of primary school and giving every parent access to wraparound childcare between 8 am and 6 pm, Meanwhile, Labour still does not have a policy for parents.

A nursery owner in my constituency told me how the Government’s funding for so-called “free” hours covers only about half of their costs, and even with the recently announced uplift for three and four-year-olds, the rate simply does not meet their needs. The Early Years Alliance found that a third of childcare providers suggested that they may close within a year due to rising costs. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that all these parents who are being told that they are now eligible for free childcare are actually able to access some?

Specifically, I will deliver free childcare for all parents of nine-month-olds until they start school. We have worked with 10,000 businesses to make sure that we get this right. We are supporting the development of new places, by increasing the rates by up to £200 million this year and £288 million next year. We also have a huge programme of work. We will be considering all options to make sure that we are increasing the capacity in the system and that there is enough money in the system to deliver on our policies.

Multi-disciplinary Subjects

19. Whether her Department is taking steps to increase the number of multi-disciplinary subjects taught to students before university. (906640)

I share my hon. Friend’s view about the importance of a broad curriculum, which is why the English Baccalaureate combination of core GCSEs is so important. English, maths, at least two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language are a key preparation for the Advanced British Standard at ages 16 to 19. The proportion of pupils entered for the EBacc has increased from 22% in 2010 to 39% in 2022.

When I was a student—and a bit of a surfer dude—at the University of Southern California, I was struck by the fact that Americans, when they go to university, do not have to make the choice when they are 16 or 17 between arts and sciences. Will the initiative announced by the Secretary of State in Manchester mean that, in future, British students will not have to make that early choice?

Increasing the number of subjects under the Advanced British Standard means that students will have the benefits of the greater breadth of study that my hon. Friend references from his own experience as a surfing dude. The intention is that majors will have comparable depth and rigour to A-levels so that they can support progression, including to university.

Education: 16 to 19-year-olds

We are investing an additional £3.8 billion over the course of the Parliament to strengthen post-16 education and training, and we will boost 16-to-19 funding by £1.6 billion compared with 2021-22. We have launched our T-level programme, and 52% of apprenticeship starts in 2022-23 provisionally were by young people under 25.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does the Department have any jurisdiction over an academy refusing to offer a sixth-form place to a high-performing pupil with special educational needs who has more than met the academic requirements for one?

I was really sorry to hear about the difficult experiences of my hon. Friend’s constituent; I was disturbed to hear what has gone on. I know that my hon. Friend has raised the matter in correspondence with the Department, which the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston), recently addressed. I hope that her constituent is now safely settling in at her new college, but the Schools Minister and I will absolutely look at this again.

Apprenticeship Starts: 2022-23

22. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of the number of apprenticeship starts in the 2022-23 academic year. (906643)

There were more than 335,000 starts in the 2022-23 academic year and more people undertaking high-level apprenticeships, with starts at level 4 and above increasing by 7%. Those are provisional figures; further figures will be set out in November. We are increasing investment in apprenticeships to £2.7 billion by 2024-25.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but given the decline in level 2 and 3 apprenticeship starts, might it be an idea to consider the views of leading industry experts who are calling for the ringfencing of apprenticeships for 16 to 18-year-olds?

I say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I respect enormously, that 70% of apprentices are at level 2 or 3. I hoped that he would be getting up to celebrate the 10,130 apprenticeship starts in Birmingham, Selly Oak since May 2010.

High-quality Childcare

We are investing over £4.1 billion to expand the current free childcare entitlement offer to eligible working parents of children aged nine to 36 months. We are also increasing the hourly rates for childcare providers for the existing entitlements, and funding rates will be confirmed in the autumn.

The Government’s proposals will lead to thousands more families expecting to access childcare, so we might expect to see more childcare opening. However, in the past year some 600 nurseries have already closed, and in my constituency of Walthamstow there are now three children chasing every childcare place. Why does the Minister think that is the case, what will he do about it, and how will we ensure that in April parents who are not already accessing childcare can do so?

Part of the reason why we are staggering the entitlement is to ensure that we have the staff in place to deliver it. In the next few weeks we will announce changes to the processes for recruiting people. We will launch a big campaign of recruitment in the new year to increase the workforce, and I have every confidence that we will meet the commitment.

Special Needs Education: Funding

Higher needs funding for children and young people with complex needs is increasing by a further £440 million next year, bringing the total higher needs budget to £10.5 billion in 2024-25—60% higher than it was in 2019-20.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, and I heard the earlier responses, but there is a shortage of places in special needs schools—special schools for children who need those places. Will he carry out a national assessment of the number of places that are available in special schools against the number of places that are needed, because it is resulting in some children having to attend mainstream schools when actually they should be in special schools?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have approved the opening of 78 special schools, and this year we collected new data from local authorities on their capacity and demand forecast for special schools. That will help us to support them more effectively to fulfil their duty to provide sufficient places.

Topical Questions

Mr Speaker, I stand with this House in condemning the barbaric terrorist attacks on Israel. The brutal actions of Hamas have sent shockwaves that have reverberated all the way to our shores. My ministerial team and I recently met leaders from the Jewish education community. I was deeply moved by the experiences that they shared but horrified by the rise in antisemitism that they faced. That is totally unacceptable. All students deserve to learn without fear or harassment.

Disturbingly, I have also seen evidence of students and academics appearing to support Hamas. Let me be crystal clear: Hamas is a terrorist organisation and supporting it is a criminal act. The Government will take action against those who do. With my Ministers, I have written to schools, colleges and universities, reminding them of their duties under Prevent and that incidents of antisemitism will not be tolerated. We teach our children the British values of liberty, mutual respect and tolerance. This Government will always stand by those values.

I join my right hon. Friend in the comments that she has just made.

Strike action in schools has caused significant disruption to children and parents in my constituency and resulted in the loss of some 25 million school days across the country. I welcome the part that my right hon. Friend played in bringing the dispute to an end, with the largest pay award for teachers in 30 years. However, what further steps is she taking to protect children from the impact of future strike action?

My right hon. Friend is correct: it is unacceptable that the disruption caused over 10 days of strike action saw millions of school days lost. That is why the Government are introducing minimum service levels in schools and colleges, to protect children and parents from the damaging impact of future strike action. We must find a balance between teachers’ right to strike and protecting children’s education. In the first instance, we have asked unions to work with us on a voluntary agreement.

I join the Secretary of State in recognising the impact of the conflict in the middle east on our education system here and the importance of every child being able to attend school safely.

Rates of persistent absence are now double what they were five years ago. Labour’s plan starts with resetting the relationship between families and schools, delivering new mental health hubs, and having counsellors in every secondary school and breakfast clubs for every primary school child. The Prime Minister’s first step was to say that he had maxed out on supporting our children, and now the Secretary of State is blaming parents for keeping children at home with a cold. When are Ministers going to get a grip on this serious problem?

We do take this issue extremely seriously; as I said, it is my No. 1 priority. The Attendance Action Alliance includes the Children’s Commissioner, Department of Health and Social Care representatives, social workers and many others working together. The letter was sent to help parents because we have noticed that in some cases there has been a change in attendance as a result of parents not being clear about whether they should send their children to school with minor ailments. Chris Whitty took it upon himself to write, and we very much support his action.

Persistent absence is a symptom of a wider breakdown of trust right across our school system. It is no surprise, given that the Conservatives reopened pubs before they reopened schools, that they have left schools to crumble, and that they have allowed disruptive strike action to drag on for months. Labour’s first priority will be to rebuild that relationship between schools, families and Government. Does the Secretary of State not believe that parents and children deserve a lot better than the sorry mess she is presiding over today?

The hon. Lady talks about responsibility and accountability. When Labour were warned about RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2007, they did nothing. When Labour spent money on school rebuilding, they ignored school conditions altogether. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady needs to listen to this. They even rebuilt three schools and left RAAC within the buildings. A school even collapsed in 2018. What did they do in Wales? Absolutely nothing. We make the tough decisions. Labour cannot even make a single decision.

T3. In the wake of the massacre that occurred in Israel—the greatest loss of life since the holocaust—cases of antisemitism in this country have risen by 582%, and Jewish students on our campuses feel very unsafe. Glorification of this massacre has been carried out at Warwick University, Bristol University, University College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies. It is unacceptable for universities to tolerate such activity, so will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning antisemitism and state what she will do to ensure that Jewish students feel safe on campus and can study like every other British citizen? (906648)

Sadly, there are a number of Hamas’s useful idiots—a fifth column—across some of our universities. The Secretary of State has said that she will not stand for it; the Home Secretary will not stand for it. We have written to universities. This is absolutely unacceptable; we expect our universities to be safe places for all Jewish students.

If the pay offer for teachers in England had matched the award for teachers in Scotland, the Secretary of State would have averted the current strike action. Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has said that minimum service levels for teachers are

“nothing short of an overtly hostile act from the Government and an attack on the basic democratic freedoms of school leaders and teachers.”

Will the Secretary of State explain how she expects to tackle the staffing crisis in teaching when she goes out of her way to alienate the profession?

We have a record number of teachers in schools in England: 468,000. That is 27,000 more teachers today than in 2010. We accepted the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body for a 6.5% pay rise—the highest in 30 years —for teachers and headteachers in our school system.

T4.   Like all county councils, Staffordshire County Council is struggling with the rising demand for special educational needs and disabilities support in schools, and with lengthy delays in issuing education, health and care plans. That is leaving children and families with a lack of vital support and appropriate education for their needs. What steps are the Government taking to tackle the shortage of educational psychologists and to ensure that children receive the education that they need to achieve good outcomes? (906649)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of educational psychologists. We are investing £21 million to train 400 more educational psychologists, building on the £10 million already announced to train more than 200 from this term.

T2.   The Department for Education has stated that“Where responsible bodies discover lead piping, they must take action”.Will the Secretary of State confirm whether those bodies are asked to look proactively for lead piping? What action are they asked to take if any is found? (906647)

Schools must have suitable drinking water facilities. Where responsible bodies, such as local authorities or academy trusts, discover lead piping in a school, they must take action, working as appropriate with water companies. Capital funding allocated to schools each year can be used to fund the removal of pipe work if required, but when a school has a particular concern, it can contact the Department for assistance.

T6. I welcome the idea of the advanced British standard assessment, although the name is unwieldy—acronyms are used elsewhere—and difficult to export. That aside, has there been any more exploration of what the curriculum would look like and of how many years young people would need to study for the qualification? Does it mean the end of GCSEs? (906651)

No, it does not. The advanced British standard will offer a broad, balanced and knowledge-rich curriculum that builds on reforms of the last decade. Its curriculum will form a core part of the formal consultation in the coming months. GCSEs remain important, rigorous and highly regarded qualifications, providing preparation for the new advanced British standard.

T5.   When does the Minister anticipate that it might be possible to deliver at least half of all education, health and care plans for SEND children within the Government’s own legal timeframe? (906650)

We are undertaking a significant programme of reform to ensure not only that EHCPs are delivered in the right timeframe but that children get the support they need at an earlier stage without needing one.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend outline the support provided to the Metropolitan Borough of Bury by the Government to enhance educational provision for children with special educational needs? (906652)

The Metropolitan Borough of Bury is getting significant support. In addition to the funding increases, we have appointed a SEND adviser to work with the borough to improve services. The Council for Disabled Children is supporting it to strengthen EHCPs. Two special free schools have been approved, and Bury is also one of 34 areas in our safety valve programme.

T8. In recent weeks, we have seen reported instances of antisemitism rise by 1,300% and Islamophobia by 150%, with Jewish kids afraid to go to school and Muslim kids asked, “Whose side are you on?” What are the Government doing to ensure that children are taught sensitively but robustly about the wrongs of such intolerance, and does Ofsted have a role in ensuring consistency of approach in all schools? (906653)

The hon. Member is absolutely right: antisemitism has no place in education. It was an honour to join the Secretary of State’s visit to Menorah High School last week, together with the whole ministerial team, standing in solidarity with that school and with the Jewish community. We have written to all schools and colleges urging a swift response to hate-related incidents and active reassurance for their students and staff, and we continue to work with faith leaders, schools and Ofsted to monitor the response to those concerns.

T9. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), since Hamas’s attack, Jewish students on campus report that they have had a year’s worth of antisemitic incidents in only two weeks. Some have been targeted, the attack itself was celebrated, and some have received death threats. As such, does the Minister agree that universities should work with the Union of Jewish Students to publicise the welfare hotline that it has established; avail themselves of the training that the UJS offers; and work to implement the recommendations of the recent report of the taskforce on antisemitism in higher education? (906654)

I have made it clear that we will not tolerate antisemitism on campus. We are working closely with the Union of Jewish Students and the higher education Jewish chaplaincy service, as well as the Community Security Trust. I welcome the taskforce’s report and its recommendations, and we absolutely urge universities to prioritise the implementation of that report.

Having recently visited a local nursery in Birdwell, I know that its staff are very concerned about their ability to plan for provision for children in the year 2024-25. When will the Government give them certainty on hourly rates?

T10. One day after Hamas’s brutal massacre in Israel, a student at the University of Manchester spoke of being full of “pride and joy” at a once-in-a-lifetime experience—not only a disgusting comment but one that points to possible extremism in our university campuses. Far too many think that there are no consequences for spreading such hate in our educational settings, so will my right hon. Friend set out what the real consequences are? (906655)

I mentioned previously that unfortunately, we have some of Hamas’s useful idiots across our campuses, and we will not stand for it—they represent a fifth column supporting terrorism. We are doing everything possible. The Prevent duty requires higher education providers to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, and we will work with the universities to ensure that they take any extremist activity very seriously.

James, a 14-year-old lad from my constituency, has been passed from pillar to post by schools that simply cannot deal with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. Will the Minister meet me on that specific case?