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Volume 744: debated on Monday 29 January 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

Support for Children with SEND

1. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901183)

6. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901188)

11. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901194)

15. What steps she is taking to improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (901199)

There is nothing more important than ensuring that everyone in our country, regardless of need, gets the very best education possible. That is why our special educational needs and alternative provision improvement plan will ensure that all children get the support they need to reach their potential. We have opened 108 special free schools, including 15 since September, and launched a £70 million change programme to test and refine our systemic reforms, benefiting every region in England. Earlier this month I announced an extension to our short breaks programme. We have a plan and we are delivering on it.

Today, many parents of children with special educational needs, including those in my constituency, are at their wits’ end. Either they are fighting to get an education, health and care plan for their child or they are struggling to access the right support when they get one. That is a waste of public money, a waste of parental energy and too often a waste of their child’s precious potential. Does the Secretary of State agree with my constituents, who feel that the system is broken?

I would agree that there has been an absolute increase in special educational needs in the past five, six or seven years, largely because we know more, but also because covid has added some pressure on the system. We have expanded the system and want to ensure that all children with special educational needs, even more than before, get the help they need. We have an improvement plan in place, which was published in March 2023 and focuses on early identification and improved support all the way through the journey. We are training many more people and putting more support in place for the hon. Lady’s constituents.

In smaller and rural communities such as mine in West Lancashire, populations and services are often very sparsely distributed and SEND students often have to either travel upwards of an hour to reach any provision, or go without. What is the Government’s plan to address that issue?

We have been trying to increase the number of places within both mainstream and special educational needs and alternative provision settings. As I say, we have 108 more special educational needs schools already built and 76 more approved. We have worked with many local authorities, including in rural areas, to make sure they get the provision they need.

Every child with special educational needs or disabilities should receive the high-quality support they deserve, but schools and councils do not have the necessary resources to meet increasing demand and rising costs. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on the funding and powers available to councils to improve SEND provision?

That is one reason the high-needs budget is up by over 60% in the past four years, and will reach £10.5 billion in 2024-25. We are also supporting local authorities with financial deficits through the safety valve and delivering better- value programmes. In most constituencies, including in the hon. Lady’s area, the funding has gone up by 25% to 35%.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 1MC.] (Correction)

I also have several cases in my constituency, where children and young people can wait months, if not years, not just for assessment but for a plan to address their needs. Sense has reported that less than half of local authorities have multi-sensory impairment teachers, and the National Autistic Society reports that three in four parents say that their children’s schools do not fully cover their needs. What are the Government doing about that?

Our plan to introduce national consistency and standards will be published in 2025. We will deliver it through local partnerships and inclusion, digitise records, and make it much more transparent so that parents can see what is happening. In terms of mainstream support, we will improve early language support, we are working with integrated care boards to improve support for neurodiversity in schools, and 100,000 teachers have received autism training. There is additional special educational needs co-ordinator training as well as vital early language support.

My office operates a regular advice surgery for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities, in conjunction with the University of Liverpool law clinic, to which I pay tribute. There are simply not enough places in mainstream schools or special schools. Children with SEND from the most deprived areas are less likely to be identified compared with similar children from more affluent areas. What are the Government doing to ensure that children in constituencies such as mine are identified early and can get the help they require?

The hon. Gentleman makes a vital point. Early identification is absolutely key in providing support and ensuring that it impacts the child as early as possible. I am very happy to understand more about places. Local authorities have made lots of bids, and that is why many more special educational needs schools have been, or are being, built—I announced 15 recently. Although I do not know whether his local area bid into them, we have many schemes to ensure that local authorities have financing to improve the number of places in mainstream schools and special educational needs schools.

What work is being done to support local authorities in addressing the placing of children with special educational needs and disabilities out of their own counties and localities to receive the essential support they need? In Essex, the problem is ongoing and affects all our Essex colleagues. I pay tribute to our county council, which is doing incredible work—it is well rated—but frankly it needs help, assistance and support from central Government.

There are a number of things there. We have put £2.6 billion into increasing the number of places—Members across the House will have heard of additional school places in their areas—and we have a £70 million change programme to ensure, through work with local authorities, that the improvement plan that we published in March 2023 goes from being a piece of paper to being implemented on the ground and felt by all our constituencies and all families with children with special educational needs.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on the provision of training in SEND during initial teacher training to ensure that more teachers are aware of the support that children might need, and on the recruitment of specialists, such as educational psychologists and speech and language therapists?

We are implementing a gold thread of high-quality teacher training reforms to ensure that teachers have the skills they need. The Department has been exploring opportunities to build expertise, through a review of the initial teacher training core content framework and the early career framework, to identify how we can equip new teachers to be more confident in meeting the needs of children and young people with SEND. There will be more investment in educational psychologists, of which there will be another 400, and more investment in early years SENCOs, of which there will be another 7,000.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 2MC.] (Correction)

Similarly to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), I welcome the introduction of a new SENCO national professional qualification—I declare an interest, as my wife is a SENCO—but to create a truly inclusive school environment, all teachers need the knowledge, skills and practical training to support children with special educational needs and disabilities. What steps is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to ensure that initial teacher training gives them that support and training?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and also for all the work he has done in this area. We worked together when he was Minister for children and families and I was working in the Department of Health and Social Care, and it is something that we both care deeply about.

As I said in answer to the earlier question, there is a golden thread of high-quality teacher training reforms. We will be looking at a revised framework and working with providers so that they can ensure that the contracts deliver the very best support for teachers. What will be vital, and something that Members will feel, is the additional 7,000 SENCOs that will be trained in the coming years.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 2MC.] (Correction)

Worcestershire County Council has some welcome plans to set up a new autism free school in Malvern. Recently, I visited Our Place—an independent provider—in West Worcestershire, which provides specialist education, mainly for children with autism. Is it the Secretary of State’s understanding that such independent provision would be affected by taxation should the Opposition bring in a tax on independent schools across this country?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point: there are 2,408 independent schools across our country, many of which provide special educational needs support and excellent education in particular specialties. If those schools were subject to increased taxation, that would make provision more difficult. We will have to assess what that would mean.

A number of colleagues have mentioned initial teacher training. Perhaps they and the Secretary of State should look no further than tomorrow, when my ten-minute rule Bill comes before Parliament—a Bill that aims to increase and ensure there is autism training for all teachers. Will the Secretary of State back it?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s work in this area. Initial teacher training courses must equip trainees to meet all the teachers’ standards, including standard 5: that teachers must

“have a clear understanding of the needs of all pupils”,

including pupils with autism. Through the delivery of our improvement plan, we will develop new practitioner standards to support frontline professionals, including a standard on autism. I look forward to my hon. Friend’s working with us.

Postgraduate Research Applications: Visa Changes

2. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of changes to visa fees and conditions on the number of applications for postgraduate research. (901184)

19. What assessment her Department has made of the potential impact of changes to visa fees and conditions on the number of applications for postgraduate research. (901204)

Our visa changes strike the right balance, ensuring we have a fair and robust migration policy but maintaining the UK’s place as a top destination for the best and brightest from around the world. The hon. and learned Lady will be pleased to know that we continue to attract the best scientists from across the world: we have over 46,000 postgraduate research students from overseas, 41% of the total, producing groundbreaking and collaborative research.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but I am afraid the evidence does not entirely bear out what he is saying, because UCAS figures reveal a notable fall in accepted applications from international students. Both Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Napier universities in my constituency of Edinburgh South West are highly sought after destinations for international PhD students. Both carry out vital scientific research, with strong links to commercial and industrial needs—not just in Scotland, but across the United Kingdom and, indeed, across Europe and the world—but the Government’s visa rules are making those universities far less attractive destinations for international students. Is the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), the former science Minister, not right when he says that the UK

“will never be a science superpower behind a visa paywall”?

I know that the hon. and learned Lady is a stickler for data. Our target was for over 600,000 international students every year, and we are well over that target. As I say, our visa changes strike the right balance, being fair to the taxpayer while ensuring that we have good international students coming to our country.

The minimum salary requirement for a skilled worker visa is set to increase by 48%, from £26,200 to £38,700, jeopardising the prospects of early-career researchers and academics coming to the UK. Can the Minister answer the question from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) that he did not answer: how will the UK be a science superpower behind that visa paywall?

I think I have set that out. We have 36% of university researchers coming from outside the UK, and over 46,000 postgraduate students from overseas—41% of the total. What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that the real cost of the SNP’s tuition fee policy is that Scottish universities are unable to provide places for local students, who are 13% less likely to take a place at a university in Scotland than English students are to take a place in England.

Will the Minister be investigating the discovery, exposed by The Sunday Times yesterday, of Russell Group universities taking students with much lower academic qualifications for undergraduate degrees, and when he does so, will he check that the same is not happening in the postgraduate field, given the much higher fees that can be charged for overseas students?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He will know that, while I am a strong supporter of international students, I am absolutely clear that I want a level playing field for all domestic students as well. I met vice-chancellors only yesterday afternoon, as soon I had seen the report in The Sunday Times, and I have asked the Department for Education to carry out an urgent investigation into bad practice by agents where it occurs, as I was very disturbed by what I saw. We want absolute fairness of entry for domestic students as much as for international students.

I listened to the Minister’s response to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), but in December I was also assured by the Minister that he was committed to the target of 600,000 international students. However, recent research from IDP has found 45% of its August and September applicants to study in the UK would consider changing their study destination if post-study work visa lengths are shortened. What is his assessment of the impact that any changes to the postgraduate work visa could have on the international education strategy and the sustainability of the sector?

The hon. Gentleman, the Opposition spokesman, knows that visa matters are for the Home Office. The Migration Advisory Committee is looking at the postgraduate international student visa route and will come to its conclusions. However, as I keep saying to him, our target was for over 600,000 international students a year, and we have well surpassed that.

Persistent Pupil Absence

Tackling persistent absence is my top priority, as indeed it was last year. I pay tribute to our incredible teachers and heads who have gone above and beyond to get children back to school. We are more than doubling the number of attendance hubs to support 2,000 schools, we are investing £15 million to expand one-to-one mentoring to help 10,000 children and we will be requiring all schools to share data to support earlier intervention. Our plan is starting to work, with 380,000 fewer children persistently absent or not attending last year, and numbers continue to fall.

But by 2026, 2,435 children in Manchester, 907 in Tameside and 937 in Stockport are set to miss half their time at school if current trends continue. Labour has a plan to fix this crisis, backed by Sir Kevan Collins, the Government’s own former education recovery commissioner. If this is the Secretary of State’s top priority, why is her plan not working?

It is working. It is not going to stick on the trajectory, because we have already turned around the trajectory. Since the pandemic, it is already falling in England. There is no better example of the Labour party having no plan and just sniping from the sidelines than on the question of attendance. I suggest that Labour Members look at other countries around the world because this is a global phenomenon. We have daily data that is almost unique, which is why we are now reducing the figures. If we look at Wales—Labour-run Wales—we see that attendance in school is much worse, at nearly eight days lower per pupil.

The Secretary of State says that keeping children in school is her top priority, but since 2016 persistent absence in Newcastle has more than doubled and severe absence is up 282%. She says it is a global phenomenon, but what matters is what happens in schools in Newcastle. Labour’s plan for schools is supported by Sir Kevan Collins. Why will she not support it? What is she going to do about this, because we need to see change now?

The hon. Lady may have mixed up a couple of things there, but the plan to get children back into school is to have daily attendance data, which we introduced and sent out to every local authority. Some local authorities do not perform as well—perhaps the hon. Lady’s is one of those—but we send out daily data so that they can identify exactly where the schools are. We are working with attendance hubs, which we are introducing across the country. For individual one-to-one attention we have attendance mentors. We have a national campaign and a cross-Government action alliance, all of which has meant that England has a 7.5% absence rate, compared with 11.5% in Wales, and it is much higher in most countries around the world. We have a plan, and we are delivering on it.

I worked as a teacher and as head of year with overall responsibility for school attendance. Labour Members seem to forget that there is also a role for parental responsibility in all of this. In my time, I encountered a large cohort of parents who found that it was still cheaper to pay the fines they were given and save the money by going on holiday during term time. Is it not time to ramp up the cost of fines for parents who choose needlessly to withdraw their children from their education, harming the child’s outcomes?

Every moment matters in school, and we have improved and increased our school standards. The most important thing is that children are now there. Thanks to our data, we can now see patterns and those who are taking a week off outside term time, or those who perhaps have a pattern of behaviour of taking particular days off. We can go into the data—we are about the only country in the world that can do that, so we are uniquely positioned to tackle the problem. We can go down into the data and work at school level and local authority level, to ensure that we put into action everything we can to improve attendance.

Attendance matters, and we know that some schools and local authorities have higher attendance rates than others. That is why the Education Committee, the Children’s Commissioners and others all say that their top priority is to ensure that all schools and local authorities follow best practice guidelines. My private Member’s Bill, the School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill, will make that mandatory. I know that the Government support it, so will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to ensure that all colleagues across the House back the Bill, and no one objects to it on Second Reading this Friday, so that we can make best practice mandatory and get our kids back to school?

I thank my right hon. Friend for all her work in this area. She is right; the first thing to do is ensure that we understand best practice, and that it is rolled out everywhere. A lot of work is being done in that area. I very much appreciate the initiatives that she has introduced, and I urge colleagues across the House to support her endeavours.

The millions of children persistently absent from school is a national scandal, yet last week Government MPs joined together to vote against Labour’s long-term plan to deal with that issue, putting party above country and children. So far the Government have only announced sticking plaster policies. Will the Secretary of State come forward with a long-term plan to address that properly, or do schools and families have to wait for a Labour Government to finally give all children the education they deserve?

Certainly not. Under a Labour Government, school standards would plummet back to where they were the last time Labour had education under their control—27th in the world for maths and 28th for English, if I remember correctly. Standards fall under Labour, and it has absolutely no plans to get children back into school. As I said, this Government have uniquely put in place daily data to enable us to get down and implement lots of different plans. We are also planning to legislate for children who are not in school, which I think was about the only thing Labour actually put in its plan. We are committed to doing that, and we warmly welcome the private Member’s Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), the Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill, and look forward to working with her when it progresses to Second Reading on 15 March. I urge all hon. Members to support the Bill.

Falling Pupil Rolls

I recognise the challenge from falling rolls when there is demographic change. That is why we are changing how the growth and falling rolls funding is allocated to local authorities—it is now based on decreases as well as increases in pupil numbers. We are also giving greater flexibility to allocate funding to meet the revenue costs of reducing surplus places.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Declining school rolls in London is a big issue that I have raised in the House on a number of occasions. We are seeing families with young children being driven out of London because of the affordability of housing and the cost of living crisis, and a new report out today by London Councils shows that the situation is getting even worse. In Lambeth we are seeing a 17.5% drop in demand for reception places over the next five years. Archbishop Tenison’s School, opposite the Oval cricket ground in my constituency, closed last year. We need urgent action from the Government. The falling rolls funding is helping, but that is just for the short term. Will the Minister look at how we can protect our vital education assets? Will the Government finally address the cost of living crisis?

It is true that a period of change is coming as the bulge in primary school numbers starts to move into secondary schools, and it is important to plan ahead for that. We want to work with local authorities, and I know that the hon. Member’s local authority, Lambeth, is being proactive in looking at amalgamations where necessary. We also have pupil place planning advisers in each region working with local authorities and academy trusts, and school resource management advisers working directly with schools. There will also be some repurposing of some space in schools—I am not speaking specifically about her constituency—with opportunities for more early years provision in some cases, and more special educational needs provision. We will have to be agile and ensure that there is still sufficient space for parental choice.

As the Secretary of State knows—we share a local authority—when it comes to calculating demand for secondary school places, West Sussex gets a D-minus. One of my districts is oversubscribed and last year more than 50 children—almost all from one school—were taken out of district to a school that none of them had applied for and some of them had not heard of. Next year, it could be even worse. Despite help from my noble Friend Baroness Barran and the regional schools commissioner, West Sussex has still done absolutely nothing to address the shortage of secondary school places. Will the Minister intervene?

As I said to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), it is true that there is change as numbers move from primary into secondary, and it is important to try to plan ahead. On the specifics of West Sussex, I will be pleased to meet my hon. Friend to discuss it further.

School Attendance

Attendance did decline through covid. It is now improving, but there is a lot more to do. We are expanding attendance hubs to support nearly 2,000 schools and we have launched the “moments matter” campaign to remind parents of the importance of every single day in school.

In Hartlepool, we have seen a rising number of parents and guardians opting for home-school education. As of November, that number had increased to 186, more than tripling in four years. In addition, we have a huge number of children who simply do not turn up at school. Will my right hon. Friend please share the steps that he is taking alongside Hartlepool Borough Council to ensure that those children are receiving a fair and decent education?

I will. Local authorities have duties towards those children to ensure that all are receiving a suitable education and act if not. The consultation we held on revised guidance to help fulfil that responsibility recently closed, and we will publish the response in due course. We remain committed to legislation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) said, to create statutory registers of children not in school in order to help local authorities identify those eligible children.

I know from speaking to schools in Wimbledon that access to mental health support can get pupils back into school or keep them in school. What plans does the Department have to roll out more access to that mental health support so that we can see that trend increase?

Of course, there are multiple layers to mental health support. The mental health support teams programme, which we are rolling out gradually across the country, continues to expand. At the end of March 2023, 35% of pupils in school or further education were covered by that, including 47% at secondary. When the figures for this year come out, I expect them to be higher. Unlike the Opposition, we are putting mental health support not only into secondary schools but into primary schools, where it can make a big difference.

The reality for mental health support teams in schools is that funding is not guaranteed beyond 2025, and the coverage is patchy. Earlier this month I heard about a teenager in a secondary school in my constituency who has not attended for four months because of mental ill health. The school is convinced that if there were dedicated, qualified mental health practitioners in secondary and primary schools, attendance would improve. Will the Minister back my ten-minute rule Bill to commit to exactly that duty, to be paid for by trebling the tax on social media companies, which so often are at the root of those problems?

The hon. Member identifies important problems. There are important links between mental ill health prevalence and non-attendance. We will see benefits from the offer to all state schools and colleges of a grant to train a senior mental health lead, as well as the wider mental health support teams that I mentioned.

Early intervention is key. We need to look at what more can be done at primary school level because, although not entirely, often the signs are already there by the time children get to secondary school. Could the Minister say more on that? The transition from primary to secondary is also key, and we need to look at that.

The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. It is important to consider the role of mental health in primary as well as secondary school. We put mental health education on the curriculum through relationships, sex and health education, and we are investing in the mental health support teams that I mentioned, as well as the training grants. Of course, some schools do the transition from primary to secondary very well. It can be an unsettling time for children, but also an exciting one, and it is important that we maximise those benefits. There is a lot of good practice out there.

In England, school attendance is impacted by off-rolling—a practice that does not exist in Scotland. Now, we hear in a report that schools are actively removing GCSE students, not for any behavioural issues but because they are struggling academically and the school wants to protect its place in the league tables. What steps is the Minister taking to address what the Centre for Social Justice has called

“a system which effectively rewards schools for exiting academically underperforming students”?

Let me be abundantly clear: off-rolling—removing a pupil from a school without using a permanent exclusion—is unacceptable and unlawful. That is in the Ofsted framework, and it is strengthened in the revised framework that came out in 2019 to look at that. That can be seen in Ofsted’s report. It is also looked at by the Teacher Regulation Agency. We must be abundantly clear that being involved in off-rolling is not consistent with the conduct we expect of a teacher. In serious cases, it could result in action.

SEND Places: Gloucestershire

7. What recent estimate she has made of the number of school places available for pupils with special educational needs in Gloucestershire. (901189)

Places for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities have increased in Gloucestershire since 2015. We estimate that there are 1,700 places, and the local authority opened two additional settings in 2022-23.

At the moment, 120 pupils have been assessed as needing special school places, but those places are not available. Over the next couple of years it looks like at least 200 more special school places will be needed in Gloucestershire. Can the Minister look at the situation urgently to see what he can do to help?

We are working closely with local authorities on this issue. We have allocated more than £1.5 billion of high needs capital allocations in the last two years for local authorities to create additional places. Gloucestershire County Council has announced a 200-place moderate and additional learning difficulties school for four to 16-year-olds, to be delivered through our free school presumption route in early 2026.

Just as in Gloucestershire, we are short of specialist schools—two of our three are rated as inadequate and need improving. The most vulnerable children are unable to go to school because need is not being met. Will the Minister look at what can be done in Shropshire to provide places for the most seriously affected children?

In addition to working with Gloucestershire, we work with Shropshire on its capacity. We have already announced 41 new special free schools with a further 38 in the pipeline.

Cost of Living Support: Devolved Administrations

8. Whether she has had recent discussions with her counterparts in the devolved Administrations on the potential merits of providing additional financial support for school pupils in the context of increases in the cost of living. (901190)

I agree that, given all that the UK has in common, it is vital that we talk about policy issues frequently, including on devolved matters. The UK Education Ministers Council last met in June last year, when it was hosted by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in Liverpool. I understand it is for the Scottish Government to issue the invitation for the next one—we await their missive with anticipation.

Expanding free school meals has a direct impact on children’s health, promoting cognitive development and improving test scores and concentration. The Scottish Government are rolling out universal free school meals for primary school children. What additional financial efforts will the Minister make to address educational inequality, such as supporting and following the example of the Scottish Government to improve outcomes for all pupils?

We await the Scottish Government’s full programme, but I will say that, in recognition of the benefits of free school meals and targeting them where they can have most effect, one in every three pupils in England are now eligible for free school meals, compared with one in six when Labour was in Government.

To be clear, the UK Government will not even extend free school meals to children in households receiving universal credit. Speaking in Parliament two weeks ago, the Children’s Commissioner for England urged the UK Government to expand free school meals, saying that children with an empty belly cannot learn. When will this Government follow Scotland’s lead in addressing child poverty by rolling out free school meals to all primary school children?

We have extended eligibility for free school meals on three occasions, mainly with universal infant free school meals, the extension of further education students and, most recently, by extending the protections for people in transition on universal credit. I say gently to the hon. Lady that we think it is important to target free school meals, but that it is just as important for children in secondary school as in primary.

Early Years Education

This Government are rolling out the largest expansion of childcare in England’s history, doubling the amount we spend now. This will enable more children to benefit from higher-quality early years education and childcare more of the time, building strong foundations for every child and enabling more parents to work.

Why has it taken 14 years for the Government to get around to having a plan? They got rid of children’s centres and Sure Start centres, and they have not replaced them with anything until now. Now we see chaos: people cannot get the code; they do not know what money they are getting from local government; the National Day Nurseries Association says it is a mess. What is the Minister going to do to clear up this mess?

There was a lot in that question. On the Sure Start point, we are rolling out family hubs, which will be a lot broader than the Sure Start centres were and will cover children with special educational needs up to the age of 25. As for the codes issue, as the hon. Gentleman will already know, we have worked with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to provide a solution to that issue for all parents so that no parent will miss out as a result.

I very much welcome the fact that this Government are doubling investment in early years and childcare. As the Secretary of State said earlier with regard to special educational needs, early identification of need is absolutely key. From that perspective, will the Minister meet me to discuss the urgent need for a specialist assessment centre in Worcester, after the loss of the one in Fort Royal? It has gone out for commissioning, but unfortunately we have not had any bids to host the new one, and we need to get on with delivering one for next September.

I do not know the details of my hon. Friend’s specific case, but I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further.

With just over two months to go until the start of the expanded offer for two-year-olds, the Government’s plans for early years education and childcare are in complete chaos, with nurseries and childminders across the country still waiting to have their funding rates for April confirmed. How can the Minister expect providers to confirm places with parents when they do not even know what they will be paid? Does he agree with the chief executive of the Early Years Alliance that this is yet another example from this Government of announce first and do the thinking afterwards?

I think the hon. Lady knows that the reason providers do not have their rates at the moment is that local authorities have not informed them of their rates. We published the rates in November and it is up to local authorities to tell their providers. Where they do not have those rates, that is the reason. It is yet another example of where the Labour party hopes that if it snipes enough from the sidelines, no one will notice that it has no plan whatever for childcare.

Mental Health Support: Secondary Schools

10. What steps her Department is taking to increase the availability of mental health support in secondary schools. (901192)

We are rolling out mental health support teams to schools and colleges, supporting young people to access early intervention for mental health. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Schools said, as of March 2023 there were 398 teams covering 47% of secondary school pupils. That will increase to around 600 teams by spring 2025.

When I was a young person, we had a counsellor in our school. It helped many people, not for the long term but through short-term interventions that put people on the right track and meant that they did not need more expensive interventions down the line. Unfortunately, those counsellors have gone in many schools. Labour will reintroduce them. Will the Minister commit to reintroducing a counsellor in every school to ensure that we spend now to save later?

Counsellors have a role, but we believe that a combination of rolling out mental health support teams and giving every state school and college in the country a grant to train a senior mental health lead is a better approach to take.

Degree-level Apprenticeships

The Government have built one of the most powerful apprenticeship systems in the world, reaching nearly 700 different occupations, from level 2 through to master’s degree level 7. It is great that there have been over 5.7 million starts since 2010. There are now over 170 employer-designed degree-level apprenticeships available, including for occupations such as medical doctors, space engineers, midwives, social workers—pretty much whatever. We are providing an additional £40 million in the next two financial years to support providers in expanding their offers to make sure more people can access them.

The Conservatives have transformed apprenticeships since 2010, with local education providers, employers and Bexley Council all helping to make Bexley one of the top boroughs in London for apprenticeships. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that apprenticeships have a key role to play in our economy and in social mobility, and that while Labour wants to focus on teaching divisive ideas such as white privilege in schools, the Conservatives want to support people from all backgrounds to get on in life?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Bexley’s apprenticeship event on 5 February will be a fantastic opportunity for local people to learn about the apprenticeships on offer in his constituency. We have transformed our apprenticeship system. People around the world look at us and say, “How on earth have you done that?” I am very happy to work with anybody, but all that is at risk. The Labour party would halve the number of apprenticeships, taking us back to square one.

Sadly, the Government did not intervene to save Cumbria’s agricultural college. However, will they decide to invest in agricultural degree apprenticeships, working with the University of Cumbria and Cumbria’s further education colleges, to make sure we have a pipeline of new leaders who can feed us and care for our environment through farming?

When I was apprenticeships and skills Minister, we worked together to ensure we had the right college offer in the area that was sustainable. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education will be very happy to work on that. We are looking to expand degree apprenticeships. We have provision in place to work with providers to offer many opportunities, including in agriculture.

Next week is National Apprenticeship Week, and I look forward to celebrating apprenticeships across the country. As the Secretary of State knows, small and medium-sized enterprises are crucial to delivering high-quality apprenticeships at every level throughout our economy, but the number of SME apprenticeships has plummeted by 49% since 2016, and research shows that the levy is failing to reverse the decline in employer training more widely. The Secretary of State pretends that everything is fine, but is not the real answer to back our businesses, giving them greater flexibility to enable them to deliver the training that we need to get our economy growing again?

Absolutely. Obviously, one reason for the reduction in some of the SME numbers is the fact that we made improvements to ensure that every single apprenticeship was of high quality. I want to make sure that all young people who embark on an apprenticeship, as I did, put their trust in the system and get what they deserve. We have removed the limit on caps on SMEs, and we are working on reducing the number of steps to make it easier for them to access the system. We are also looking at what more we can do: we are focusing on a number of ways in which to ensure that apprenticeships work well for SMEs, which account for 70% of employment.[Official Report, 29 February 2024, Vol. 746, c. 4MC.] (Correction)

f40 Local Authorities: Funding

We are committed to funding all schools fairly and equitably, wherever they are. The national funding formula replaces an unjust system whereby schools received different levels of funding for no reason.

It is welcome that funding for all schools has risen, but does the Minister accept that there is deprivation in market towns and villages where transport costs are higher, and that the difference between the sums for the highest funded local authorities and those for the lowest funded, such as Central Bedfordshire, is thousands of pounds per child? What can he do to close the gap more quickly?

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of deprivation factors and, indeed, transport costs. We are increasing the amount under the formula that relates to deprivation, and there is also the sparsity factor. Of course, all schools are benefiting from increases in funding, which will total £59.6 billion in 2024-25.

When it comes to the funding of schools, should not the Government just follow the money? Amber Infrastructure, which owns Newman College in Chadderton, has paid out £80 million of shareholder dividends during the time for which it has owned that PFI school. The heating system does not work, the roof is leaking—which is affecting 30 classrooms— and now two temporary classrooms must be built to accommodate the pupils. Will the Government intervene and point out to the provider that if the money is there to be taken in dividends, it is there to fix a roof as well?

I would be happy to follow up the matter of the private finance initiative contract at that college, and perhaps have some discussions with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education.

Topical Questions

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), next week is National Apprenticeship Week. When I did my apprenticeship I benefited from brilliant training and opportunities, thanks to General Motors, which got me where I am today, and I want to spread those opportunities to everyone, everywhere.

This Conservative Government have built a new high-quality apprenticeship system from the ground up. Nearly 70% of occupations are now accessible via apprenticeships, and we have delivered 5.7 million apprenticeship starts since 2010. A week from today, we will kick off National Apprenticeship Week. I ask all Members to go on a visit to meet apprentices and talk about the opportunities that are available throughout the country—a real example of levelling up. All my Ministers and I will be out, across the country, celebrating different industries and providers, and with hundreds of apprentices. This is why Labour’s policy to halve the number of apprenticeships is so dangerous: it would remove opportunities from people like me, taking us back to square one.

I look forward to Fact Check’s assessment of the Secretary of State’s comments. Given that 2,730 children in Hull are waiting more than 12 weeks for their first mental health appointment, is it pride or inattentiveness that prevents the Secretary of State from adopting Labour’s plan for a mental health professional in every school?

If I may “fact check” the hon. Lady, I think that the plan is for a mental health professional in every secondary school. The plan that we have is to introduce mental health support teams in every primary and secondary school. As usual, our plans, on which we are delivering, are better thought through, cover more people, and solve the problem that they are intended to solve.

T2. Very welcome remediation work on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—is now under way at Kingsdown School in Leigh-on-Sea, meaning that parts of the school will be open from half term. However, the school has still not had confirmation, given the extent of the RAAC, on whether there will be a rebuild of the school. This uncertainty is affecting remediation, expansion and recruitment plans. Please could we have that confirmation for the school as soon as possible? (901209)

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly for Kingsdown School. Our questionnaire programme is 100% complete, all schools have been told if it is suspected that they might have RAAC and 100% of those have been surveyed. I can confirm we will be removing RAAC from our schools for good, either through the school rebuilding programme or through grant funding, and we will inform schools shortly, once our assessments have concluded. I know that my hon. Friend has met Baroness Barran to discuss Kingsdown School and is meeting again this week.

Students at St Leonard’s School in Durham are working hard for their exams, but they are facing sustained and ongoing disruption, including challenges to doing practical coursework, off-site teaching and being bussed around the city, all because of RAAC. There is no firm date for the rebuilding to commence, and that is just not good enough. It is putting young people’s futures at risk. Will the Secretary of State now work with the regulator and the exam boards on mitigations for the small number of young people whose life chances are being put at risk by Government failure?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have been working closely with St Leonard’s School, and actually with all schools that were impacted by RAAC. I would like to take this moment to thank the headteachers and all the teachers who have done an amazing job to keep 100% of children in face-to-face education. We have spoken to the award bodies. They have been working with schools and have offered some support in terms of assessments and making sure that they can look at what more needs to be done, but exams are there to assess—

Order. We are having this problem every time. Topicals are meant to be short and punchy. I have to get all these Members in, but all you are doing is stopping them getting in. If that is the ploy, it is not going to work.

T6. My right hon. Friend has already mentioned the article in The Sunday Times, but is she aware that it is comparing apples and oranges? British students go straight into a degree course in the first year, but these overseas students referred to are foundation year students who are not on the degree course. They are doing the equivalent of A-level exams. (901213)

Of course I agree that, on entry requirements, we should ensure that we are comparing like for like and being fair to our brilliant domestic students. I was appalled to see the reporting over the weekend, which clearly showed bad practice in the use of agents. That is not acceptable. As I have said, I met Universities UK and the vice-chancellors yesterday and we are going to sort this out. There is an investigation by the Department for Education.

“It’s not our fault” always seems to be this Government’s catchphrase, and now it applies to childcare too: it is not the Secretary of State’s fault but that of local authorities; it is not her responsibility to deliver on her Government’s own pledge. Even her own civil servants are saying that some parents just will not get their places. Does she agree with the Children’s Minister that no parents will lose out? Will she give that guarantee to the House today—yes or no?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has asked about childcare, because it is yet another illustration of how this Conservative Government are delivering for working parents while the Labour party still does not have a plan. I know what it takes to deliver complex projects. I have delivered many over three decades working in industry all around the world. Given the hon. Lady’s limited experience outside politics, she should focus on not playing party politics and deliver for hard-working parents.

T7.   Educational psychologists are enormously important. What progress are the Government making on their current recruitment drive to increase their number? (901214)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a highly competitive training scheme. Between 2017 and 2019 the Department filled all 160 of its funded training places per year, and since 2020 it has filled all 200 of the funded places each year. We have now committed to training a further 400 educational psychologists.[Official Report, 8 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 6MC.] (Correction)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need highly qualified, excellent teachers in every school? Is she worried, as I am, that so many highly qualified, gifted teachers are leaving the profession after just a few years?

Of course I agree, which is why I am delighted that we have 27,000 more teachers in our schools than we had in 2010. We have a retention and recruitment plan with many different facets to make sure that we retain our excellent teachers.

T10. Working with one of my secondary schools, John Whitgift Academy, we have created a pilot scheme called “Opportunity Grimsby”, in which year 8 students and their parents are linked with local businesses. That will form part of a scheme in which the student is a workplace mentee until year 11. Will my right hon. Friend commit to coming to Grimsby to see how well the scheme is doing? (901217)

I would be delighted to come to Grimsby. I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming the apprenticeship diversity champion. She is a skills champion, and what she is doing on careers and mentoring in Grimsby is a model example of what should be done across the country.

T4. This month’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report sets out how childhood poverty impacts on educational attainment, and how the consequences last a lifetime, entrenching intergenerational poverty. Forty-two per cent of children in Newcastle are growing up in poverty. Will the Secretary of State support Labour’s call for free breakfast clubs in every primary school, to give those children the best start in life? (901211)

We are investing very heavily in breakfast clubs. This is another area in which we think that targeting support matters. That includes secondary schools, not just primary schools, as the Labour party suggests.

Is it not a disgrace that young children are told to cover up their badges so that people do not know which school they attend, and are told to remove outward signs that they are Jewish? Security is provided once they get to school, but what will my right hon. Friend do to make sure that children are educated on the evils of antisemitism, so that we spread this message across all schools, rather than just Jewish schools?

My hon. Friend is right. After Holocaust Memorial Day, we are acutely conscious of the continuing need to act against antisemitism. One of the things we are doing is launching a new fund for both schools and higher education, to try to address antisemitism effectively at its root.

T5. Each year, students have to apply for the Turing international mobility scheme before the Easter deadline, but those from widening participation backgrounds need to know that they have the money before they apply, and universities are getting confirmation of funding some months later, in June and July. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that Turing should be open to all, so will she press Treasury colleagues for a multi-year funding settlement? (901212)

I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman, and I listen carefully to what he says. We are working to smooth out any issues with the Turing scheme. However, it is worth noting that we have increased the proportion of disadvantaged students taking part in it from 50% to 60%. I am proud that we are embedding social justice in the scheme.

Will students affected by RAAC, such as those at Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton, receive special dispensation in their GCSEs and A-levels? I recently met the college’s exceptional headteacher, Mrs O’Callaghan, and I take this opportunity to wish her all the best on her well deserved retirement at the end of the year.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating, commending and thanking Mrs O’Callaghan on her life’s work. I appreciate that the RAAC situation in schools has been very difficult, which is why we are trying to work with them on things like coursework assessment. They should be in touch with awarding bodies. We are also making sure that we reimburse all reasonable revenue costs.

T8. I recently met headteachers in West Derby, who shared with me their serious concerns that the current Ofsted inspection model is not fit for purpose, is deeply unfair and is driving teachers out of a profession they love. In the light of today’s Education Committee report, will the Secretary of State meet me and the experienced educators in Liverpool, West Derby, to discuss their concerns and what they feel needs to change? (901215)

I pay tribute to the headteachers in Liverpool, West Derby. We think it is important to have an independent inspectorate, and we think it is important that assessments are clear. In the wake of the tragedy of Ruth Perry, it is right that we think about all the aspects, some of which have already changed. To be clear, we think it continues to be important that there be a clear external assessment for parents.

Families across Tipton and Wednesbury are still struggling to get an initial assessment for children with SEND. What work is my right hon. Friend doing to hold organisations such as child and adolescent mental health services to account, so that we ensure that these assessments are done quickly?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We are working with all local authorities, through our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, to make sure that assessments happen a lot quicker, and that children get the support they need.

T9.     School exclusions and suspensions are on the rise. Children who have experienced trauma are at the greatest risk of exclusion, which only adds to the overall negative outcome for children with adverse childhood experiences, yet the Department’s behaviour guidance makes no reference to childhood trauma. Will the Minister meet the all-party group on childhood trauma to discuss how we can develop better guidance to take account of childhood trauma? (901216)

We want to see schools not excluding children where that is at all possible. There is no right number for exclusions; they have to be determined in the light of the circumstances at the school, but we expect people to look at the matter as a whole. I will, of course, be happy to talk to the hon. Lady.

I thank the Secretary of State for her earlier answers about RAAC. Will she give priority for a complete rebuild to St Edward’s Catholic Academy in my constituency, following the adjudication that more than 80% of it is affected by RAAC? Can the plans start very soon, please?

Yes, I can give an assurance that we are going through all the details and assessing each instance on a case-by-case basis. I know that all hon. Members are keen to know what will happen, and they will have the answers very shortly.

The changes in the visa rules for international students and their dependants are having a significant impact, not only on the number of students coming to universities such as the University of York, a Russell Group university, but on these universities’ finances. Universities will have to make significant cuts if this visa programme reaches fruition. Will the Minister meet vice-chancellors and the Home Office, together, to talk about the impact this is having?

We have regular conversations with vice-chancellors and the Home Office on this issue. However, as I say, our target has been more than 600,000 students and we have well surpassed that, and 36% of university researchers come from outside the UK. We have a proud record on international students and that will continue.

St Peter’s Church of England Primary School in Budleigh Salterton is an excellent school, but it is being let down by temporary classrooms that are way past their best. Temporary classrooms should be just that: temporary, not a permanent solution. Further to my letter, which is winding its way through the Department, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this matter further?

Children’s services are struggling, and in too many parts of England, outcomes for children are just not good enough. What conversations has the children’s Minister had with those in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about both resources and capacity for children’s services? What measures will he take where councils underperform, and thus let children down?

We have very regular conversations with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on that issue, as part of our “Stable homes, built on love” reforms to transform the children’s social care system, and we take strict action where local authorities are not meeting the requirements.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council is, bizarrely, taking parents to court to challenge their legal right to secure special educational support for their children. With the council losing 90% of those cases and this costing £100,000 every three months, will the Secretary of State join me in asking the council to think again? Will she agree to meet me to discuss special educational needs provision for Bournemouth?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are concerned by any local authority spending too much money taking parents to court. Children need to get the right support, in the right setting, at the right time, and I would be happy to have a discussion with him about that.