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Volume 742: debated on Monday 11 December 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Industrial Action: Impact on Children and Parents

2. What steps she is taking to help reduce the impact of industrial action by teachers on children and parents. (900555)

Last year’s strikes were one of the biggest outbreaks of industrial action in a generation. Over 25 million school days were lost, with far-reaching consequences across our society. We cannot afford a repeat of that disruption, and it is my duty to protect children’s education. That is why we are consulting on minimum service levels to end further disruption to education, while providing certainty to parents. MSLs will balance the right to strike with children’s fundamental right to a good education.

The issue extends to university students as well. My constituent’s final degree papers were not marked this year because of industrial action. That put in jeopardy her postgraduate course and her employment offer. Her degree was issued only after her mother personally visited the dean of the university involved and demanded action. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that degree exam papers are marked on time in the current academic year?

Our young people should never be pawns in the disputes of adults. The behaviour of University and College Union members was disgraceful, and their actions caused untold disruption and stress for thousands of students. Although the higher education sector is independent of Government, the damaging impact of strike action cannot go unchecked. That is why we are consulting on minimum service levels in this sector, unlike the Labour party, which always bows to its union paymasters.

It is a pleasure to be called to ask a supplementary to the first question.

I am ever mindful of the importance that the industrial action finishes. Has the Secretary of State had any opportunities to discuss this with the Department of Education in Northern Ireland? I understand that she has no responsibility for Northern Ireland, but it is important that we work together to try to solve the problems of industrial action. It is affecting loads of schools, particularly those whose pupils have special educational needs. I am really concerned.

The hon. Member puts his finger on it. Industrial action has a massive impact, particularly on vulnerable children, those with special educational needs, and those in exam cohorts. I am always happy to share with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations, and I am very happy to share what we are doing on minimum service levels.

School Funding: County Durham

3. What steps her Department is taking to ensure the adequacy of school funding in County Durham. (900556)

Nationally, school funding will rise to over £59.6 billion next year, the highest ever in real terms per pupil. This year, the north-east had the largest percentage increase in per pupil funding in the whole of England.

I welcome the Minister to his place.

Every day is a school day, but I wonder whether the new Schools Minister is familiar with the School Cuts website, which indicates that 214 out of 240 schools in County Durham face spending cuts in 2024-25. The cumulative impact of cuts in County Durham amounts to £113 million, equating to a £175 cut per pupil. Does he believe that restricting school budgets will help or hinder the educational opportunities and life chances for children in my east Durham constituency?

I have seen the website that the hon. Member mentions. Its calculations are based on some very speculative assumptions, and the conclusions that it reaches should therefore be treated with great caution. Next year, County Durham will receive over £391 million based on current pupil numbers, which is an extra £7.8 million for schools.

I, too, welcome the Minister to his place.

On Friday, I joined Labour’s candidate Alan Strickland on a visit to Ferryhill School in County Durham. The staff team and students are amazing, but staff are left teaching in portacabins, the dining room and the sports hall, the staff room is behind a curtain on a stage, and years 10 and 11 are in a different town. Last week, yet more schools were added to the list of those with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, and the Secretary of State could not confirm how many will need complete rebuilds. Given the urgency, can the Minister tell parents, children and staff when this chaos will end?

Mr Speaker, allow me to take this moment to pay tribute to all school staff, leaders, children and their families, who have shown great fortitude in dealing with the disruption caused by RAAC. We have moved quickly to make sure all schools with suspected RAAC are surveyed and to work with schools to put in place alternative arrangements. Of course none of that is perfect, but schools have shown great flexibility in working towards that, such that we now have 99% of affected schools back with full-time face-to-face education.

Childcare Support: Working Parents

The Government announced earlier this year transformative reforms to childcare to benefit children, parents and the economy. By 2027-28, we expect to spend in excess of £8 billion every year on free childcare hours and early education, representing the single largest investment in childcare in England ever.

In recent months, I have visited several early years providers across Bracknell Forest, where it is clear that the improved provision and ratios will make a big difference both for working families and for the providers. Could the Minister please outline what more could be done to better incentivise working parents to return to work?

Last week the Department for Business and Trade published its response to its consultation on flexible working, making clear that this Government are committed to changes to legislation that will enable more flexible working. Together with our expansion of childcare, that will ensure parents have more choice over how, when and where they work.

Welcome back, Mr Speaker.

The Early Education and Childcare Coalition has found that 57% of nursery staff and 38% of childminders are considering leaving the early years sector in the next 12 months, and Stroud businesses say the same thing. That absolutely cannot happen. They are a skilled and amazing workforce, whom parents trust with the most precious things, and the Government have backed the industry as integral to the growth strategy. What evidence does my hon. Friend have that the UK is retaining nursery staff and childminders, and what can we be doing to ensure the new system is successful?

I thank my hon. Friend for her work championing the early years workforce and join her in the tributes she pays to them. The total number of paid early years staff has remained stable in recent years, and between 2021 and 2022 the number of staff increased by 2%, or 5,900 people. We will publish updated statistics in the coming weeks.

Is it not a fact that after 13 years of the Conservatives in government, our country is in a situation where preschool and out-of-school care is the most expensive in Europe and beyond? We have so many talented people—especially women, but men as well—who are not coming back to use their high skills to recharge the economy, because they cannot afford childcare. What is the Minister going to do about it?

What we are doing is making the single largest investment ever made in childcare. That is going to save the average family up to £6,500 per year on the cost of childcare, in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s party, which has no policy for this area whatsoever.


5. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of students completing T-Level courses. (900558)

22. What recent assessment she has made of trends in the number of students completing T-level courses. (900578)

I am very proud that more than 4,000 students now have T-levels on their CV. In the summer, 3,119 students completed their T-levels with a pass or above, meaning that we had a pass rate of 90.5% before factoring in remarking and retakes. We will publish a T-level action plan with more information early next year.

In my constituency, Christ the King Emmanuel sixth form college does fantastically well in educating young people, but an Education Committee report stated that in the first year of the T-Level transition programme, just 14% of students went on to start the T-level. The Government have yet to publish the data for subsequent years. Can the Minister outline when the new data will be published and whether that progression rate has improved?

I am very glad that Christ the King Emmanuel sixth form college is offering T-levels, and that the hon. Lady has had 8,300 apprenticeship starts in her constituency since 2010. Our T-level transition year is a new thing that we have introduced—it is now called the foundation year—and very close to 50% of students go on to do a level 3. However, I said in my opening answer to her, we will have more information about these matters in the next year.

Welcome back, Mr Speaker.

According to Make UK, 36% of manufacturing vacancies are hard to fill because of a lack of skills. There are 170,000 fewer apprenticeship starts than in 2017. The Prime Minister cast doubt on the future of T-levels in his conference speech, when he said that he thought they should be scrapped. Just what is the Government’s plan, or will they leave it to my hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) to address the chronic shortage of technical skills over which they have presided?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would celebrate the 9,000-plus apprenticeship starts in his constituency since 2010. We have built our skills revolution in everything from apprenticeships and our T-level programme to our higher technical qualifications, free boot camps and free level 3 courses, and that is driving the increased skills uptake. It is worth noting that we have had 337,000 apprenticeship starts over the past year. He should welcome that.

Shockingly, results last summer revealed that one in three students dropped out of their T-level course, which is higher than for earlier cohorts. Something is going very wrong. In April, the Education Committee raised major concerns about T-level roll-outs, regional variations and falling employer engagement. Access to opportunity really matters, so should the Minister not now pause and review the defunding of alternative qualifications, as Labour would, and urgently bring forward the 2023-24 T-level action plan in order to address concerns raised by the Select Committee and Ofsted and bring much-needed clarity and support for colleges, employers, parents and students?

Not content with being in the anti-apprenticeship party, given her plans to weaken the apprenticeship levy and halve the number of apprenticeships, the hon. Lady is also taking on the mantle of T-level denier. We have 18 T-levels; we have, as I mentioned, a 90.5% pass rate; we have 10,000 students doing our T-level programme; and we expect the data that we will release early next year to show that many thousands more students are doing the T-level programme.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 7MC.] I am very proud of our T-level programme. I know that the hon. Lady will be eating mince pies at Christmas, but I suggest that early next year she may be eating humble pie, because our T-level programme is something to be proud of.

After-school Childcare: Long-term Educational Outcomes

7. If her Department will make an assessment of the potential impact of after-school childcare on long-term educational outcomes. (900560)

In October, the Government announced the allocation of £289 million of start-up funding to local authorities for wraparound care, which we know supports parents to work, as well as having the potential to improve attainment, engagement and attendance.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 7MC.]

I recently visited Muschamp Primary School in Carshalton and Wallington, where I observed the Junior Adventures Group UK—a leading provider of school-age childcare in my constituency—in the crucial support that it gives children, particularly those with special educational needs, beyond school hours. However, it is evident that school-age childcare needs reform. I welcome that £289 million, but can my hon. Friend explain how the frameworks will ensure that that investment effectively supports families, specifically those with requirements for special educational needs and disabilities?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have set out clear expectations that all wraparound provision should be inclusive and accessible. We have given local authorities flexibility in how to spend their funding, but we expect them to distribute it in a way that ensures equal access to provision for parents of children with special educational needs.

Pupils with SEN and Disabilities

8. What steps her Department is taking to support pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. (900561)

We want all children to receive the right support to reach their full potential. That is why, since March, we have opened 14 new special free schools, with 78 more approved; we have launched our £70 million change programme, benefiting every region in England and testing key SEND and alternative provision, including innovative approaches to speech and language therapy; and, to help young people with special educational needs into work, we are doubling the number of supported internships to 4,500 by 2025. By next year, we will have increased high-needs funding by 60%, to over £10.5 billion, in just five years.

Last year in Buckinghamshire, one in three education, health and care plans were issued outside the legally required 20-week timeframe. Will the Secretary of State outline what concrete steps the Department is taking to improve access to educational psychologists and reduce waiting times for EHCPs?

I know how hard parents fight to get the right support for their children. Sometimes that takes too long, and I am determined to make that easier, which is why we are simplifying and standardising the EHCP process. However, to deliver that support, we need our fantastic teachers, teaching assistants and specialist SEND teachers; without them, we could not provide children with the support they require. That is why we are boosting training opportunities through a new national professional qualification for special educational needs co-ordinators, which will be launched in autumn 2024, and investing a further £21 million to train 400 more educational psychologists. We are also training up to 7,000 early years specialists, over 5,000 of whom have begun their training. We now have 280,000 teaching assistants in our schools, an increase of over 60,000 since we have been in office.

One in 10 children in education in my constituency receives special educational needs support. Thanks to the Department for Education, we have had a new special school, the Austen Academy—that is a free school—and significant increases in budgets, but can we also ensure that teaching children with special needs is a mainstream part of teacher education? Supporting children with special educational needs every day is now a mainstream part of school.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. That is exactly why we are developing a new NPQ for SENCOs, which will launch in autumn 2024, and are inputting into the standards for teacher training to ensure that everybody has an understanding of how best to support children. There are now a lot of children with special educational needs, and we all need to know how to support them better.

From my citywide consultation of parents of children with SEND, it came to light that the particularly harsh and punitive disciplinary processes being exercised in schools are having a very harmful effect on many of those children. Will the Secretary of State or the Schools Minister meet me to discuss a particular multi-academy trust in my constituency where those processes are having a very negative impact on young people?

I am very happy to confirm that the Minister for children and families will be happy to meet the hon. Lady.

Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking Julie Nixon, head of the Spectrum of Light charity in Rossendale and Darwen, for the work she did on Saturday by bringing together parents from across Lancashire and Rossendale and Darwen on a Zoom call? Those parents were exactly the same as me, in that they all had an autistic child, and I was appalled to hear from them about the time they are having to wait to see an educational psychologist. Will the Secretary of State agree to write to Lancashire County Council to find out what the heck is going on with those parents whose children are missing school and are unable to access an education, health and care plan?

I am very happy to work with my right hon. Friend to improve things in Lancashire. Spectrum of Light sounds like it is doing an amazing job—there are many people who are looking to better support our children with special educational needs. Of course, we recognise that we need to improve aspects, which is why we published an improvement plan in March this year.

Would-be educational psychology trainees for September 2024 have been left in limbo because of delays in the Department confirming the available funding. The number of educational psychologists has fallen since 2010, despite requests for education, health and care plans increasing every year. That national shortage of qualified practitioners is contributing to the crisis in SEND that is affecting so many families across the country. Does the Secretary of State agree that this uncertainty about Government funding for educational psychology training is unacceptable, and when does she expect it to be resolved?

We announced in November 2022 that a further £21 million was going to be spent to train more than 400 educational psychologists.

Pupils with SEN and Disabilities

9. What steps she is taking to reduce waiting times for children with special educational needs and disabilities to receive support. (900562)

In our improvement plan, we set out plans to deliver consistent early support through our new national standards, backed by a 60% increase in high-needs funding and in programmes such as our £13 million investment in the Partnerships for Inclusion of Neurodiversity in Schools programme, which supports the needs of neurodiverse children.

More than half of children with an education, health and care plan are now experiencing a delay, and even after receiving an EHCP, my constituent’s child was held back a year and had to wait another year before finding a space in a special school. Over 1.5 million children in the UK have special educational needs, so can the Minister tell me what he is doing to ensure that parents and children such as my constituents get the support they need quickly?

We are investing £2.6 billion to transform the special educational needs and alternative provision system. That has included a 36% increase in funding to Birmingham, where the timeliness of EHCPs has been getting better each year between 2020 and 2022.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 8MC.]

Beyond the traditional methods of support for SEND, the Minister will know that councils give specialist provisions, and we have heard a lot today about some of those longer-term provisions, for children in particular, and the time involved. What assessment does the Department make when looking at the distance that some of these children need to travel to get this specialist support, particularly when it is out of county—for example, Shropshire into Staffordshire? It may not seem a long distance, but on some of those meandering, serpentine roads it can take a very long time to travel 20 miles.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. Out of county placements are not ideal for the child and their family or for the cost to the local authority, which is why we have 78 new special schools in fruition. We are also committed to seeing the children whose needs can be met in a mainstream school being supported at an early enough stage with their special educational needs.

Thank you, Sir. It is good to see you back safe and well in the Chair. As this is the nearest I am ever going to get to it—No. 10, please! [Laughter.]

Special Needs Education: Access

I wondered what was happening there, Mr Speaker.

As part of our £2.6 billion investment to reform the SEND and AP system, we have announced 41 new special free schools, with a further 37 in the pipeline. We have also set out plans for new national standards to make clear the support that should be available in mainstream settings for children with special educational needs.

Can I take this opportunity quickly to thank the Secretary of State, her junior Ministers and officials for all the help for the schools affected by RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—in my constituency?

Turning to SEN, demand in Essex far outstrips supply. The Secretary of State will know that just prior to the summer recess, I launched a campaign for a new SEN school in south Essex. I am delighted to tell her that we have a trust that is seriously interested, we may have a site and we may even have some money. On that basis, could I meet her or one of her junior Ministers—early in the new year, please—to update her on where we have got to and to ask for help to make this dream a reality?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his campaign, with which we are very familiar in the Department; we would be delighted to meet him. Where local authorities do feel there is a need, they can open a new special school through the free school presumption route, which I would be happy to discuss with him further.

The Minister mentioned the £2.6 billion that the Government have invested, but this is not filtering down. That is the key issue for parents accessing SEN provision, and so many parents are raising it at my surgery. One concerned mother told me:

“Parents and children are being put under intolerable stress and anxiety with a system which is inefficient and creating a significant mental health burden”.

The Minister mentioned the national standards. Will the standards include the fact that SEN children and children with autism are being arrested and their mental health is not being treated properly because schools simply do not have enough training and support? Will the Minister please address that?

I thank the hon. Lady. We are keen that schools are as inclusive as they say they will be when it comes to children with special educational needs. We have nine change programme partnerships to try to make sure that the system works a lot better. The money is given to local authorities, and we should already be seeing an improvement, but I would be happy to discuss it further with her.

Local Skills Needs: Education Providers and Businesses

11. What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that tertiary and technical education providers work with businesses to meet local skills needs. (900564)

16. What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that tertiary and technical education providers work with businesses to meet local skills needs. (900572)

We are transforming skills through our local skills improvement plans, backed by £165 million and supported by business, further education and higher education, and though a £300 million investment in institutes of technology, which are collaborations between business, higher education and further education to revolutionise our tertiary education offering.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Stoke-on-Trent College has recently launched its new “Skills Ready, Future Ready” strategy and has been working with a number of employers locally to fill skills shortages, and it is very welcome to see the local skills improvement fund investment of around £3 million for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, but given our industries locally and the skills shortages, we need to go further, so what will my right hon. Friend be doing to help fill some of those skills shortages—to support our industries to help people earn better wages and get skilled now?

My hon. Friend is a true champion of skills in Stoke-on-Trent and, as he mentioned, we strongly support the £3.2 million we are investing through the local skills improvement fund. That is underpinned by £3.8 billion of additional national investment and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know we will be opening the Stoke-on-Trent Staffordshire institute of technology in September 2024, with £13 million of capital funding as part of our revolution in tertiary education.

My constituency is at the beating heart of motorsport valley and it is critical for motorsport’s future success that we get skills training and education right for young people who want to go into that sector. The Grand Prix Trust is supporting that effort, having launched a £100,000 annual bursary scheme to help disadvantaged college students become part of the dynamic British motorsport sector, a partnership with the National College for Motorsport and Silverstone University Technical College. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming this fantastic initiative, and tell me what more he can do to help promote this important work?

My hon. Friend highlights the skills revolution we are having in this country, and the initiatives he has mentioned increase the collaboration between business and skills providers to help disadvantaged students in his constituency to climb the ladder of opportunity in a high-profile industry. I extend my thanks to Pat Symonds, chief technical officer of Formula 1, and Martin Brundle, chairman of the GPT trustees. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the South Central Institute of Technology based in Milton Keynes is also exploring opportunities to work with motorsport in the area.

Plymouth is home to world-class skills in marine and nuclear engineering. Demand for apprentices in our city is growing, especially with the construction of new berths and docks for nuclear submarines at Devonport dockyard. Does the Minister agree that skills training and apprenticeships are just as important as new cranes and new docks in making these projects a success and supporting our armed forces, and will he meet me, a delegation of Plymouth businesses, our city council and City College Plymouth to look at how we can turbocharge creating more apprenticeships in our city to deliver these exciting and innovative projects?

The hon. Gentleman will be pleased that his constituency has received over 14,910 apprenticeship starts since 2010, which is really good news, but he is absolutely right that our skills offering is the key for future employment and jobs and to ensure people climb the ladder of opportunity. We have the apprenticeships, the bootcamps, the higher technical qualification and the free level 3 courses, but I will look at what he says and would be happy to meet him and other Plymouth MPs to work through the important issues he mentions.

Tertiary education providers are themselves businesses that seek to meet local skills needs, and the University of Exeter is no different. It hosts international students who contribute £486 million to Devon’s economy. People in Devon do not think of these students as immigrants, given how this funding helps boost skills among local people, so will the Minister talk to his counterparts in the Home Office about taking students out of the net migration figures?

As a former Exeter University student myself, I know how brilliant it is, and it also has a huge and incredibly successful programme of degree apprenticeships. I am very supportive of international students; they bring a lot of income to our country. Visa matters are always matters for the Home Office but I am sure there will be discussions about the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

School Support Staff Vacancies: Trends

Support staff play a vital role in our schools. We have given schools the freedom to recruit the staff they require to meet their own needs; although we do not collect central data on vacancies as a result, I can tell the hon. Lady that the number of support staff working in schools has increased for the past three years.

We have already heard in this Question Time about delays in getting the education, health and care plans in Lancashire. As a consequence, rural schools like Quernmore, which I had the privilege of visiting on Friday, are left with more children with special educational needs in mainstream but without the financial support package that should come with that. These small rural schools are therefore having to support children with additional needs and do not always have the right number of staff to be able to do so in the way they would like. Is support available to rural and small schools, especially in Lancashire, to meet the needs of all children?

We must meet the needs of all children; and at some level, every teacher is a teacher of special educational needs and disabilities. I recognise that there can be particular difficulties for smaller schools in rural areas, as the hon. Member mentions. We have the wider EHCP system, which is better than the previous system. On places available in special schools, where children are in mainstream schools, I recognise the central role played by teaching assistants. That is why we have set out in the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan how we will look to consolidate that position and give further advice on the best deployment of TAs.

Teacher Workload

Reducing unnecessary workload is a priority for the Department and for me. We have convened a workload reduction taskforce of experts, teaching unions and practitioners to make recommendations on how to minimise workload for teachers and school leaders.

It is good to see you back, Mr Speaker, and looking so well.

The last-minute nature of Ofsted inspections is causing huge anxiety to my small rural schools in Meon Valley. That means that teachers and in particular headteachers are putting off activities, such as residential school trips, educational trips and professional development courses, in case they get that call from Ofsted. Will my right hon. Friend consider changing the notice period for inspections so that teachers can plan their workload better?

I value all those activities that my hon. Friend sets out that schools undertake for their children. Like her, I represent a rural constituency—indeed, we have next-door constituencies. I recognise what she says about small rural schools. Inspections have an important role to play, but Ofsted also has the flexibility in the framework to take account of the particular position of smaller schools.

Teacher workloads are being exacerbated by teacher vacancies that schools are struggling to fill, and funding pressures are resulting in cuts to support staff, who often support the most vulnerable and needy children. That is leading to an exodus of teachers from our schools. Just last week, we saw the staggering figures from the Government that teacher training recruitment targets have been missed by a whopping 50% in our secondary schools, with the sharpest fall in maths, which is allegedly a priority for the Prime Minister. How bad does it have to get before the Government will produce and implement a proper workforce strategy?

I can confirm that there are 27,000 more teachers and 60,000 more teaching assistants in our schools compared with 2010. We have the most talented generation of teachers ever, and we continue to focus on a strong recruitment and retention strategy, so that we continue to get the best talent to teach our children.

The workload and stress levels of teachers rise exponentially during an inspection. I am sure that the Minister will join me in offering condolences to the friends and family of Ruth Perry. In the light of the coroner’s verdict that the “rude and intimidating” nature of the Ofsted inspection contributed to Ruth Perry’s tragic suicide, how is the Minister ensuring the welfare of school leaders is prioritised during inspections?

I of course extend my condolences to the friends and family of Ruth Perry. It was the most awful tragedy. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will say a word on that tragedy and Ofsted in a moment. For now, let me just say that of course the inspection framework and process must both be fully informative to parents, and supportive to teachers and schools.

Free School Meals: Impact on Children and Parents

15. What recent assessment her Department has made of the impact of free school meals on children and their parents. (900571)

Free school meals support disadvantaged families to the value of £480 a year, ensuring that eligible pupils receive a healthy, nutritious meal. The Government have expanded free school meals more than any other in recent decades; now, more than a third of pupils in England receive them, compared with a sixth in 2010.

Recently, we have had high food inflation. While I welcome the fact that the Government have now halved inflation, one of my small schools has told me that it is unable to provide free meals within the money allocated, as it cannot benefit from the same economies of scale as larger schools. Will my right hon. Friend review the funds available for small schools?

I acknowledge my hon. Friend’s point. The national funding formula recognises that some schools are necessarily small and do not have the same opportunities to realise economies of scale. Every school receives a lump sum, irrespective of its size—£134,000 for next year—and the Government have reformed the sparsity factor, increasing funding for that from £42 million in 2021-22 to £98 million in 2024-25.

Higher Education Institutions: International Students

17. What recent assessment she has made of the potential impact of trends in the level of university applications from international students on the long-term sustainability of higher education institutions. (900573)

I am pleased that we have surpassed our target, with well over 600,000 international students. They remain an important source of income and a source of pride for our universities, and the total impact of international students was worth £37 billion across the duration of their studies.

As the Minister has just mentioned, the economic benefit of overseas students is some £37.4 billion spread between universities and economies across the UK, but applications in this UCAS admissions round are down. With increasingly stiff competition from elsewhere, UK institutions cannot simply rely on their excellent reputations, so what more can the Minister do to ensure that the UK remains an attractive place for international students to study?

As I said to the hon. Lady, we have something like 689,000 international students and our target is 600,000 a year.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 8MC.] We are working very closely with Sir Steve Smith. We want to diversify to a whole range of different countries to advertise ourselves to international students but, as I say, the trends are good. The hundreds of thousands of international students who are here benefit our economy and provide an important source of income for universities.

It is great to see you, Mr Speaker.

As well as contributing to Britain’s world-leading research, the financial contribution of international students is vital to UK universities, particularly at a time of rising cost pressures and real-terms fee value erosion. Any sudden changes in the number of international students coming to the UK obviously puts the higher education sector at risk. The Minister speaks of his pride, but I would like to stress the point and ensure that he puts this on record. Can he absolutely give his assurance to the House that the Government remain robust in their ambition to continue to attract 600,000 international students a year, as laid out in the international education strategy?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question. I am absolutely committed to the target of 600,000. As I said in response to the previous question, we have surpassed that, with well over 680,000 students.[Official Report, 18 December 2023, Vol. 742, c. 8MC.] As I say, they are of benefit to our universities and our economy, and they are a very important source of income for all our higher education institutions.

Violence in Classrooms

19. What recent assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of trends in the level of violence in classrooms. (900575)

Of course, no one should face violence in school. In England, we have taken decisive action to improve pupils’ behaviour through strengthening the behaviour in schools guidance and investing in giving support and propagating best practice through the behaviour hubs.

The latest PISA figures, which were released in the last few weeks, show a stark picture of violence in schools across the whole UK. Nowhere else in the OECD do rates of violence reach anywhere near the levels in the UK. Pupils are almost twice as likely as the OECD average to witness a fight in their school—39% in England and 36% in Scotland—and, as a teacher, I can say from experience that violence in schools disrupts every part of pupils’ learning. Exclusion clearly is not working, and the Scottish Government’s recently announced proposal in Scotland is to put all the responsibility on teachers. What more can the Government do to illustrate a way forward for schools to deal with this problem, so that young people’s learning is not hampered by violence in the classroom?

For completeness, we ought to note that the PISA study noted that the great majority of pupils in England reported feeling safe in school—very similar to the OECD average—and were less likely than the OECD average to see the most serious manifestations of such behaviour, such as seeing gangs at school or seeing somebody with a weapon.

It is absolutely true that schools must have the full range of measures at their disposal. There is no right level of exclusion, and it should not be used lightly, but it has to be there; it has to be available. Early in our time in government, we made it clear that teachers can use reasonable force. We also extended searching powers, removed the requirement to give parents 24 hours’ written notice for after-school detentions and simplified advice on how to prevent and tackle bullying, because a safe and ordered environment is essential for both children’s education and their general wellbeing.

Topical Questions

Ruth Perry’s death was a tragedy that left a hole in the hearts of her family, her community and her school. Throughout this year, I have been honoured to work closely with Ruth’s sister Julia and her friends Lisa and Edmund to introduce important changes to inspection practice alongside Ofsted, which ensure that headteachers can share their inspection outcome, including with colleagues, friends and family. Our new changes mean that if a school is graded “inadequate” due to ineffective safeguarding but all other judgments are “good”, it will be reinspected within three months. That has now happened at Caversham Primary School, which was regraded as “good” this summer. We also doubled the wellbeing support for our school leaders. In life, Ruth dedicated herself to her school, and we will build on her legacy to help ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement; I agree with those sentiments.

This Conservative Government will fund a new school to replace the flood-prone Tipton St John Primary School, which has had to close three times this year and had another near miss last week due to intense heavy rainfall. It is vital that spades are in the ground next year for the new school. Will she meet me to discuss this urgent matter further?

Our school rebuilding programme is transforming 500 schools across England, and I am delighted that Tipton St John Primary School is one of them. The school is currently in a flood zone and was impacted by the recent storms. We are working actively with the diocese of Exeter and Devon local authority to identify suitable sites for the school. I am happy to agree to meet my hon. Friend very soon.

May I start by again sending my condolences and those of the entire Labour party to the family of Ruth Perry? We must all now listen and learn to deliver an inspection system that works in the best interests of children, school staff and communities.

The Education Secretary has said that her Government are doing everything to get children into school, yet this term the attendance rate has declined consistently, hitting a terrible new low in the latest figures. Is not the real truth simply that the Government see attendance as a problem affecting other people’s children?

Absolutely not—attendance is my No. 1 priority. I regularly meet and chair the attendance action alliance group, and we are determined to help ensure that children are in school, because that is where they can get the best education. We are working with GPs and other medical professionals to ensure that everybody is aware that, first, school is a good place to be—actually, a better place to be—for those with mild anxiety and, secondly, we are there to give support in school, and we want everybody to be in school. Those efforts are starting to pay off—we now have 380,000 fewer children missing school—but it is very much at the top of my agenda.

If it is the Secretary of State’s No. 1 priority, why is she not legislating for a register of children not in school? That measure has wide support right across this House, but it was missing from the King’s Speech despite the Secretary of State’s repeated promises to legislate, despite it having been in the Government’s abandoned Schools Bill and despite it being in her Department’s submission, according to the permanent secretary at the Department. Will the Secretary of State confirm, as the permanent secretary suggested, that it was blocked by No. 10?

No, absolutely not. Of course, more things go into King’s Speeches than there is legislative time; that is a process that the permanent secretary laid out. But it is my priority, and I hope to legislate on it in the very short term.

T2. I heard from a school in my constituency last week that, even though it has six school counsellors, there is a long waiting list for children with mental health concerns to see a counsellor. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that schools are adequately resourced to best support pupils in that regard? (900580)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. We know that school-based provision works best when all staff are clear about how to support mental health, which is why we are providing senior mental health lead training grants to all state schools, 14,400 of which have claimed a grant so far. We are also working with the Department of Health and Social Care to extend mental health support teams to cover at least 50% of pupils by spring 2025.

If there is to be hope for a peaceful solution in the Israel-Gaza conflict, the input of Palestinian academics will be crucial, but many have already lost of their lives. Could the Minister make a statement about representations that he has made to Cabinet colleagues about introducing an emergency humanitarian visa for academics in Gaza?

My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour has been a long-time champion on this matter, and I know his local work well. There are 701 free schools open, and a further 140-plus are in the pipeline. There is a current round of applications for consideration of special and alternative provision free schools, but further capital would be a matter for future spending reviews.

T6. The independent review of relationships, sex and health education in schools submitted its recommendations to the Secretary of State back in September. When will those recommendations be made public? If they are not to be made public, why not? (900584)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are conducting a review of RSHE guidance. These are important and sensitive topics and it is important to get them right. He will not have long to wait to see the results.

T4. The Secretary of State will be familiar with reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in Essex, and I thank her and her ministerial team for their support. Can she give an assurance that contractors such as Mitie, employed to build a temporary accommodation unit for local schools, are working with schools to deliver programmes on time and to meet their needs? Right now, we are seeing delays that are affecting the educational outcomes of local children. (900582)

The temporary classrooms at St Andrew’s Junior School were delivered by Essex County Council, which I thank once again for its exemplary leadership managing RAAC in Essex. The Department is working closely with all parties to ensure that any concerns are addressed quickly. Work is ongoing today to fix a disabled access door. I can confirm that we will remove RAAC from all schools and colleges. Settings will be offered either grant funding or rebuilding projects. We are assessing the right solution for each case and we will update the House shortly.

Swallowfield Primary School has a space-constrained site in my constituency, and relies on temporary accommodation to provide important special educational needs and disabilities interventions for pupils. However, because of an inadvertent breach of section 77 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, it has had a loss of space and may lose that unit because of the compromising effect on outdoor space. Given that the space lost could never have been used for recreational purposes—

It sounds like there are important details to get to grips with, so I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

T5. The Government are rightly focusing on technical as well as academic education with the new British standard. University technical college sleeves would support the Government to enhance pre-16 technical education in secondary schools. Will the extra £50 million made available for technical education in schools in the autumn statement be available for UTC sleeves? (900583)

My hon. Friend is a champion for UTCs and technical education. I am delighted that the Secretary of State recently approved two more UTCs. A couple of weeks ago I visited the brilliant Harlow BMAT STEM Academy, which is a UTC, and UTC Portsmouth. We will respond shortly to Lord Baker’s request for a UTC sleeve pilot, as she mentioned.

Corpus Christi junior school on Brixton Hill has been closed since July due to RAAC. We now have tenders approved for the significant works that the Department for Education said were necessary and that it would pay for, but they must begin in January to ensure that they are completed in time. Could the Secretary of State explain why, despite repeated requests, her Department has still not approved the necessary funding? Any further delay could mean that my young constituents are left with further disruption and no building to learn in for the next academic year.

We are, as the hon. Lady will know, committed to ensure that reasonable costs for temporary accommodation and so on are covered in the immediate term and beyond, to make sure that capital costs are covered for either refurbishment or, in some cases, rebuild. There will be further detail to come before long.

T9. England has shot up the international rankings in education, but schools in Wales have not. Does that not show that Conservative education reforms are helping kids to thrive in schools in England? (900588)

Yes. We have to compare and contrast that with Wales, which has the lowest educational standards in the UK. The simple answer to why that is, is that it is run by Labour. Under Labour, our education standards plummeted from eighth to 27th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science. Thanks to the hard work of our teachers and pupils, and the reforms under this Conservative Government, we have rocketed back up the tables to 11th for maths and 13th for reading and science. Every time Labour gets power, education standards fall. The Conservatives are the only ones taking the long-term decisions to deliver a better education for our children.

Despite my private Member’s Bill on statutory guidance to reduce the cost of school uniforms—the Education (Guidance about Costs of School Uniforms) Act 2021—far too many schools require a plethora of logos and branded items. When can we expect more robust intervention from Ministers to deal with this issue?

Staff at Bramhall High School have worked extremely hard to maintain the education of students following the discovery of RAAC. I am grateful for the support given by the Department and Stockport Council to ensure that temporary classrooms will be in place in the new year. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the headteacher and the staff for all their hard work? Given the existing condition of the school, will he join me in calling for it to be included in a new build programme?

Can you just help me to get through? Members have not got in yet and I really do want to help everybody.

I join my hon. Friend in thanking and paying tribute to all the staff, children and families at Bramhall High Street. She is a great advocate for them. Schools and colleges will be offered either capital grants to fund refurbishment or permanently remove RAAC, or rebuilding projects where they are needed.

Last week, the Government published an update of the list of schools with RAAC. Will the Minister confirm that the Department is seeking to cross-check its list of schools affected by RAAC with the BBC, because it remains the case that the BBC journalists have more of a grip on this crisis than the Government?

We have a lot of people working on this and rightly so, including making sure that all the surveys get done. We have also committed to being transparent, which is why we publish regular updates to the list. We continue to work at pace to try to resolve the problems as quickly as possible for the good of the children.

Malvern College in my constituency employs hundreds of local people, supports the local economy, earns export earnings for our country, ensures that people around the world love the UK, and is a huge supporter of our local schools. What kind of destructive ideology would put all that at risk and make the UK the only country in the world to tax education?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is a dreadful policy and it will have exactly the opposite impact. It will probably actually cost money and mean children moving schools, and all because the Labour party just plays the politics of envy.

I offer my deepest condolences to the family of Ruth Perry. Following the inquest last week, will the Secretary of State now consider the removal of the single-word judgment from Ofsted inspection reports?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for arranging the initial meetings with Julia Waters—Ruth’s sister, who I know is his constituent—and attending the first few. I will be working very closely with the new chief inspector of schools when he starts three weeks today to see what more we can do, but we must remember that Ofsted plays an important role in keeping children safe and standards high.

Order. May I ask everyone to help me out in future, please? Some may not realise that topical questions are meant to be speedy, so that all Members can be accommodated.