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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
14 May 2018
Volume 641

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Apprenticeship Starts

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1. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. [905245]

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2. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. [905246]

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21. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. [905265]

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At the outset, on behalf of all on the Government Benches, may I briefly echo the Prime Minister’s words on the passing of Dame Tessa Jowell? She gave a lifetime of tireless public service, and displayed incredible bravery and dignity in the final months. I know that there will be an opportunity shortly for colleagues throughout the House to pay tributes.

Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, there have been 242,100 apprenticeship starts and we have seen a marked shift to higher-quality, longer and higher-level apprenticeships.

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Employers and providers of apprenticeships, including in my constituency, are concerned that the approvals process for apprenticeship standards is far too slow and bureaucratic. That follows the news that the Institute for Apprenticeships cleared only four standards in April and 10 in March—that is actually down from 21 in February. What extra resources will the Secretary of State give the IFA to address those genuine concerns?

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The hon. Gentleman’s constituency has leading apprenticeship employers, including Centrica, Mars and Telefónica-O2, and they play a leading role in showing what it is possible to do with apprenticeships. The IFA has brought forward a programme called “Faster and Better” to make sure that standards are approved more quickly, and we have seen the number of apprenticeship starts on standards rising sharply. We continue to monitor that.

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Last year, the Government set a target of 2.3% of the workforce for public bodies on employing apprentices, yet following a series of parliamentary questions by the shadow Education team we have discovered that the vast majority of Departments, including the Department for Education, are failing to hit that target. If the Department is unable to meet such targets internally, how are we supposed to believe that it is going to meet the 3 million target by 2020?

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The hon. Lady is right to identify the important role that the public sector plays and to say that we have to try additionally hard. She mentioned my Department, and we have opportunities for training assistants and graduates through the teaching apprenticeship.

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The Government say that they want 3 million new apprentices by 2020, but all the signs are that we are going in the wrong direction. Last year there were 70 fewer apprentice starts in my constituency than the year before, and nationally starts are down by 23%. Can the Minister tell us why that is? Do the Government agree with the British Chambers of Commerce that the apprenticeship levy is “unfit for purpose”?

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The apprenticeship levy is an important structural reform to the way we do training provision in this country, to make sure that all sizeable firms are contributing to upskilling the nation. We are in a period of change, and some employers are taking longer to bed down what they are going to do with their apprenticeship levy money. We must bear in mind that they have two years to do that with each month’s money, but we are seeing a shift to longer, higher-quality apprenticeships, and that trend is to be welcomed.

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I know that my right hon. Friend is committed to helping more disadvantaged apprentices. The Conservative manifesto said:

“We will introduce significantly discounted bus and train travel for apprentices to ensure that no young person is deterred from an apprenticeship due to travel costs.”

Will he confirm that that is still a commitment? When will it happen?

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My right hon. Friend rightly identifies the importance of making sure that apprenticeships are fully inclusive, and we continue to look at ensuring that such facilitation is available.

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What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that more women are taking up apprenticeships in science, technology and manufacturing?

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My right hon. Friend is right to identify the challenge that we have in STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths. That goes for apprenticeships and for other parts of the education and training system, as well as employment. It is partly about encouraging girls through programmes such as “Girls Get Coding”. We are taking part in the Year of Engineering, and we continue to support improvements in gender representation through our diversity champions network.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that raising the quality of apprenticeships is just as important as raising the numbers, and that there is evidence that good progress is being made in this area?

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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. In reforming apprenticeships, we looked around the world to see what the standards were in leading nations such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Having a lengthy apprenticeship with a significant off-the-job training element is very important.

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Has the Secretary of State looked at the impact of cuts in further education on apprenticeships, particularly in Coventry?

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Of course, through the apprenticeship levy, the funding available for apprenticeships will be roughly twice what it was at the start of the decade, and further education colleges are among those that can bid for that funding and benefit from it.

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Further to the question from the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) about funding for the levy, is it not right that the levy is an important part of the reforms in this policy area and will ensure that there is long-term investment in apprenticeship training?

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That is absolutely right. As I said earlier, the levy ensures that all sizeable firms contribute to the upskilling of the nation. It is an employer-led system to make sure that the apprenticeships that are done are those demanded by employers.

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May I echo the Secretary of State’s words regarding our friend, the late Dame Tessa Jowell? I think in particular of her role in the founding of Sure Start centres, not just as the shadow Secretary of State for Education but because when I was a young mum it was the local Sure Start centre that really helped me and my son. For all that is said and done in this Chamber, that is the best that any Member can hope to have achieved.

Last week, Ministers told us that nursing apprenticeships were the answer to NHS staff shortages. They set a target of 1,000 nursing apprentices, but just 30 have actually started training. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many will start this year?

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Apprenticeships are an important opportunity in the national health service, and we continue to work with the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care on them. Of course, in the health service, as throughout society and the economy, apprenticeships are employer-led programmes, so the health service takes the lead.

Higher Education: Part-time and Mature Students

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3. What steps his Department is taking to tackle the decreasing number of part-time and mature students in higher education. [905247]

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Part-time participation in higher education is absolutely important to making higher education accessible to everyone and promoting lifelong learning. We have adopted a number of measures to support part-time and mature students. For example, next year part-time students will for the first time ever be able to access full-time equivalent maintenance loans.

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The Minister will be aware that since the Government tripled tuition fees to £9,000, the number of part-time student applications has fallen by a staggering 59%. Even the former Universities Minister David Willetts has said that that is a disaster. Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to a whole generation of would-be part-time students and outline in a little more detail than he just gave what steps he is going to take to reverse this awful trend?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the downward trend in part-time students, which actually started before the tuition fee changes. The Prime Minister has announced a review of post-18 education and funding, which will look into, among other things, flexible, part-time and distance learning, as well as commuter study options, to boost the options available to those who want to pursue such a course of study.

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I declare an interest: I read history. Many graduates see an advantage in returning to higher education to learn a STEM subject. What are the Government doing to aid those people in particular?

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My hon. Friend refers to the qualifications required for someone to be able to go back and study for a further degree. We have relaxed the “equivalent or lower qualification” rules to support students who already have a degree and wish to retrain in a STEM subject on a part-time basis. If my hon. Friend is contemplating an engineering degree in his spare time, the way is open.

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First, may I associate myself and those on the Scottish National party Benches with the Secretary of State’s remarks regarding the sad passing of Dame Tessa Jowell?

Last year, more than 38,000 non-UK students enrolled on part-time higher education courses. Such students are important for universities’ income streams and for the wider local economy, so what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that part-time students from the EU are not subject to harsh immigration rules post Brexit?

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Part-time students from the EU will be treated in the same way as full-time students from the EU. We have made our position on EU students clear. We will make announcements in respect of future years—2019-20 and 2020-21—in due course.

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Does the Minister not realise that since tripling HE tuition fees to £9,000 in 2012, Tory-led Governments have been a disaster for mature and part-time students in England? As my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) said, there has been a 59% drop in part-time student applications. That has left scores of continuing education centres in HE axed, while our iconic, world-renowned Open University, where I proudly taught for 20 years, is in crisis. What is the Minister going to do now—not after a wait for pittances in the 2019 review—to protect the OU, where students will not benefit from the loans he talks about, and others from policies that have become both socially and economically insane?

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Of the £1.3 billion of grant funding that the Higher Education Funding Council for England allocated to support teaching in higher education last year, £72 million went to part-time study. The Open University received £48 million of that, and 47,000 students have steady part-time courses there. We are supporting the OU. It is going through restructuring at the moment, but as I have often said, the review is looking at that and we will ensure that it continues to deliver excellent education for part-time students.

Sixth-Form Colleges: Funding

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4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for sixth-form colleges. [905248]

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We have protected the 16-to-19 funding base rate until 2020 to make sure that every young person can access an excellent education. There are also the 16-to-19 bursary funds, which can be used to help disadvantaged students meet the costs of participation, including transport costs, and of course there will be an extra £600 for every additional student taking level 3 maths.

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That is not the reality in my community. To me, it is unjustifiable to provide £50 million for grammar schools when Wolsingham School, in the heart of rural Weardale in my constituency, has been forced to suspend its sixth form, which means that young people may have to travel up to four hours for access to post-16 education. The issues are inadequate per-pupil funding combined with historical debt from years of cuts and the failure of the funding formula to allow for smaller pupil numbers owing to rurality, not a lack of grammar school places. Will the Secretary of State please come to Weardale, and will she also look into this case with urgency and provide some assurance to young people, teachers and parents in Weardale that they will have a sixth form come September?

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I know that the hon. Lady met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and that the Department for Education is working closely with Durham. The Secretary of State will keep closely in touch with her, because I appreciate that her concern is about the learners in her constituency.

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First, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the excellent work that she is doing in this area? Is she aware that the absolutely first-class sixth-form college in Haywards Heath is now closed, in an area where there is a desperate need for a sixth-form college to cater for the ambitions and the further education of many young people coming out of our local schools? Will she do her very best to work with us, Mid Sussex District Council, West Sussex County Council and the local universities to put together a really original idea to reopen Haywards Heath sixth-form college?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. Indeed, I was at school on that campus. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] It was a grammar school then. The Department for Education is working very closely with others on the matter, and I have to say that not only my right hon. Friend’s input but that of the district council has been brilliant. I would dearly love to see an innovative and a really groundbreaking project on the site.

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If the Minister is to get to the heart of these things, she must come to Huddersfield and see that we have not only two excellent sixth-form colleges but a further education college. We need all those facilities to be as good as they can be, but at the moment all of them are struggling under financial cuts.

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I look forward to visiting the hon. Gentleman’s constituency at the earliest opportunity. I am spread rather thinly, and there are many colleges for me to get round. [Interruption.] I missed a football match yesterday.

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Which Arsenal won.

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Well, Mr Speaker, I know quite a lot about sixth-form colleges and FE colleges, although I am due a visit to the hon. Gentleman’s, and a great deal less about football, so I will not be drawn into making a comment.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point: having sixth-form colleges, further education colleges, independent training providers and higher education institutes all working together is how we can raise standards to the levels that we all want to see.

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In both educational performance and value for money, sixth-form colleges are the most successful institutions in our education system, so when will the Government fund existing colleges properly and take steps to establish many more sixth-form colleges across the country?

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We are looking at the resilience of the FE sector across the board to ensure that it is as efficient and effective as possible. Learners are at the heart of all that, as we want to ensure that young people have all the opportunities possible. Sixth-form colleges do a brilliant job, and I am looking forward to visiting Godalming College on Friday.

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On the subject of resilience, how long does the Minister think it is sustainable for 16 to 18-year-olds to be funded 21% less than those who are 16 and under, and 48% less than university students?

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The hon. Gentleman is a doughty campaigner in this area; we have had many debates across the Chamber on the issue. There is a post-18 review under way, and we are looking at the resilience of the FE sector. What matters is that we ensure that every learner, whichever route they choose to take—further education or training through an apprenticeship—has the best possible training and education.

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My local side Ashton United, who do a lot with local schools, were promoted recently.

Funding for 16 to 19-year-olds has been frozen or cut every year since the formula was set in 2013. Will the Minister confirm that the real-terms cut to the base rate for 18-year-olds will be more than £1,000 per pupil by 2020? The Secretary of State can find £50 million a year for grammar schools, but what can he offer the sixth forms reaching crisis point?

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Once again I will not be drawn on football, I am afraid.

As I pointed out to the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), there is a post-18 review going on, and we are looking at the resilience of the FE sector, which includes sixth-form colleges. Opposition Members are banging their knees, but I am very aware of the funding pressures. I praise all those teaching in the sector, as they are doing an excellent job. There is more money available, including the additional £600 per person per annum for maths and the bursary funds that I mentioned. I have heard the hon. Lady’s point, and I am aware of the excellent job that sixth forms do with quite constrained finances.

Children in Need

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5. What recent assessment he has made of outcomes for children in need. [905249]

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Of course, this is not a new issue; we are simply shining a light on it. We recently published extensive data showing the poor educational outcomes for children in need. A call for evidence has been launched to develop our understanding. My Department is also working with three What Works centres to build our national evidence base on improving those outcomes.

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That was a bit of a poor answer. The number of children’s centres has halved since 2010, 350 Sure Start centres have closed, children’s services departments in local authorities are struggling with budgets and getting enough staff, and more children are being taken into care, so that answer is quite frankly not good enough. What are the Government going to do to ensure that we have more early intervention to prevent those problems from happening in the first place?

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We are determined to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. The early years are crucial to getting that right. The gap continues to narrow, having gone from 19 to 17 percentage points. In our ambitious £800 million plan, “Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential”, we committed £100 million of investment to help close the gap further. Councils decide how they use children’s centres in the overall provision, and I have seen great work being done in Wigan, Hackney and Staffordshire. It is not simply about bricks and mortar.

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Will the Minister confirm that the excellent review of the outcomes of children in need will look not just at educational outcomes, but at employment and other outcomes?

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I can confirm that.

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I would like to associate myself and the Liberal Democrats with the tributes paid to Dame Tessa Jowell. She was an inspiration, particularly in the area of early-years provision.

Looked-after children in Oxfordshire could have to wait for up to six months to get into the secondary school that they need to, primarily because local authorities do not have the directive powers over academies that they do over maintained schools. What is the Minister doing to ensure that the most vulnerable children do not miss a day of school?

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I also pay my own tribute to Dame Tessa Jowell, who was a constituent of mine and helped me in this place when I arrived here as a young novice.

Those most disadvantaged children, to whom the hon. Lady referred, are actually given priority during the admissions process.

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What about Shakespeare?

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Well, we cannot mention Shakespeare in every question, but I am sure that the Minister will take his opportunity ere long.

Basic Skills

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6. What steps he is taking to improve basic skills. [905250]

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16. What steps he is taking to improve basic skills. [905260]

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We fully fund maths and English provision for adults and will do the same for digital from 2020. A record number of 19-year-olds now hold a level 2 qualification in English and maths. We perform to above the OECD average for literacy, at 14 out 34, but we perform below the OECD average for numeracy, at 20 out of 30, and we have to change that.

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When I met representatives of businesses in my constituency, they told me that many apprentices are missing core skills such as English and maths. What plans does the Minister have to address these concerns without placing additional pressure on young people through yet more testing?

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The new primary maths curriculum that came into effect in 2014 focuses on ensuring that children are fluent in basic arithmetic, including their times tables. The objective is for every child to leave primary school ready for the demands of secondary school. These reforms are already starting to yield results. Anecdotal evidence shows that fewer children are without these basic skills going into secondary school. My job, with responsibilities for post-16 education, is to make sure that those who missed out on that type of reformed education get an opportunity to catch up.

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Government funding for ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—has fallen by 53% in real terms since 2010, and participation rates have fallen by 36%. Home Office-funded regional ESOL co-ordinators say that there is severe pressure on provision at pre-entry level. What additional funding are the Government going to put into ESOL?

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Funding matters, absolutely—I am not disputing that; but this is also about the innovative ways in which people—

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indicated dissent.

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The hon. Lady raises her eyes to the heavens, but this does make a difference. I have seen some extraordinary examples of adult education providers working with local primary schools to make sure that people who need English language skills get the support they need.

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Why did the Minister not proceed with the grants for year 7 catch-up projects?

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I will have to write to my right hon. Friend about that. It is an area that falls between my portfolio and that of the School Standards Minister.

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Daily Mile initiatives are good for our young people’s physical and mental wellbeing, attainment, and readiness to learn in the classroom. Will the Minister therefore undertake to look at how these initiatives can be more widely rolled out in schools and also supported across Government?

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The School Standards Minister will have heard my hon. Friend’s question. This is not just about classroom learning—there is no doubt about that. There are all sorts of initiatives that make a difference not only to how much children learn but their readiness to learn.

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This Wednesday is National Numeracy Day. Speaking as a mathematician—not a historian—I welcome the fantastic work that the Government are doing to increase critical basic maths participation for longer in our schools, especially for girls. Does the Minister agree that, as our all-party group on maths and numeracy report on early years highlighted last year, we need to invest more in basic skills in maths-focused learning and teacher training for early years education, so that through the development of number sense, all children can flourish in maths once they get to school?

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It is also Mental Health Awareness Week, colleagues, as I am sure you will all be aware. I commend the ribbon to you—on top of the important point that the hon. Lady has made.

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I fear that when I take the national numeracy test on Wednesday, as I intend to do, my stress levels will be rising; I gave up maths at 15 after I took O-level. We should be shocked that one in two adults have the numeracy skills of an 11-year-old or younger—the figure is one in six for English—and that 11 million adults lack basic digital skills. We live in a rarefied atmosphere in this place, and some of us find it quite extraordinary to appreciate those facts. The test on Wednesday is a must for every Member of this House. I hope that they will join me in taking it, tweeting the picture, and making sure that everybody understands the need to be numerate.

Church of England Free School: South Birmingham

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7. What progress has been made on plans for a new Church of England free school in south Birmingham. [905251]

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As the hon. Gentleman will know, it is planned that Christ Church Church of England Secondary Academy will open in September 2021. Feasibility studies have been completed on the proposed site on School Road in Yardley Wood and will be shared with local residents at ward meetings in advance of the formal planning application in the late autumn.

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I am grateful for that information. About this time last year, Ministers and officials told us that they could afford to close Baverstock school in Druids Heath because they had more than sufficient places in south Birmingham. Now it transpires that around that time they were planning to build another school a mile and a half down the road on playing fields used by local residents, including Maypole Juniors FC, for a variety of recreational activities. Can the Minister talk us through the economics of his decision?

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Briefly.

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The decision to locate and build the new school in Yardley Wood rather than on the Baverstock site is supported by Birmingham City Council, as that location will help address the need for new secondary school places not only in the Selly Oak area but in the neighbouring Hall Green area. The feasibility study shows that the site can accommodate a school and make greater use of the playing fields, and will significantly improve sporting facilities for both pupils and the local community.

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rose—

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No, no. Gainsborough in Lincolnshire is a splendid place, but it is a considerable distance from south Birmingham. I know that I can rely on the ingenuity of the hon. Gentleman to give us his thoughts on another matter at a later point in our proceedings, but not much later, I am sure.

Safeguarding for 16 and 17-year-olds

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8. What recent assessment he has made of the quality of safeguarding for 16 and 17-year-olds. [905252]

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It was wonderful to see “Three Girls” triumph at the BAFTAs yesterday, and that was also a demonstration of what happens when agencies fail. Schools and colleges must have regard to the Department’s statutory safeguarding guidance, “Keeping children safe in education”. Ofsted has published a document setting out the approach inspectors should take to inspecting safeguarding. Inspectors will always report on whether arrangements for safeguarding children and learners are effective.

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In my constituency, the schools that serve our 16 and 17-year-olds and that have sustained the biggest cuts were graded level 3 by Ofsted, which means that they are now deemed to require improvement. Does the Minister agree that the average of £300 less per pupil is having a negative impact?

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The same safeguarding duties apply for 16 and 17-year-olds as for children of any age. That would be the message that I would send to the hon. Lady’s school.

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Sixteen and 17-year-olds are overrepresented in the secure residential estate. Instead of addressing capacity issues, last year, in the face of opposition, the Government changed legislation so that the most vulnerable children from England and Wales can now be placed in Scotland, miles away from their families, friends, schools and the health professionals who support them. Written questions that I have asked show that the Minister has made no attempt to look at the impact of this dire legislative change. Why is that?

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Placing any child or young person more than 20 miles away from their area requires the agreement of the director of children’s services. Children should always be placed where appropriate and the director of children’s services must make that decision.

Further Education Providers: Funding

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9. Whether he plans to increase funding for further education providers; and if he will make a statement. [905253]

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We protected the 16-to-19 funding base rate for all types of further education providers in the 2015 spending review. I should point out that the additional investment for the new T-levels to increase hours of learning from 600 to 900 per session will result in £550 million by the time of their roll-out. We are also spending £20 million to help teachers with T-levels, and there is a host of other funding going into FE, not least the restructuring fund—£726 million was made available by the Treasury. There is also the local growth fund for capital and the strategic college improvement fund.

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What the Minister really said there, in a very long-winded way, was that there is no new funding. T-levels do not exist yet, and the funding she has re-announced already exists. Some £1.3 million would have been available to the colleges and further education establishments in my constituency had the Department not redirected the underspend between 2014 and 2017. I simply ask her: can we have it back, please?

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As I pointed out earlier, we have a post-18 funding review going on and we are looking at the resilience of the FE sector—

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indicated dissent.

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The hon. Gentleman can shake his head—

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I can shake my head, yes.

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The hon. Gentleman was shaking his head, but perhaps he just had a fly buzzing around his ears.

We are looking at resilience. I was at Leicester College last week—it was a fabulous visit to a fabulous college—and, interestingly, it said that employers and universities are now coming to it. The opportunities for FE colleges to generate income through apprenticeships and the apprenticeship levy have never been better.

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The Minister will be aware that work has now started on the new £17 million high-tech and skills centre at South Devon College in Paignton. Does she agree that this funding makes the college the ideal place to be one of the first to deliver T-levels?

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I do not want to jump a stage in the announcements, but I have to say that South Devon College is clearly doing a wonderful job putting in that new facility and, I have no doubt, working very closely with local employers.

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As the Minister will know, Hull College has been one of the recipients of Fresh Start funding. However, a condition of the funding is that the college can spend only 60% of its income on staff, which has led to its having to get rid of 231 full-time equivalent posts—one in three jobs going from Hull College. Will the Minister explain where the figure of 60% came from, and how will she make the process more transparent so that people can actually understand what is happening?

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I am very aware that Hull College has had record amounts of funding put in, and we are working very closely with it to make sure that we get a sustainable solution for learners in the hon. Lady’s area. Good colleges, and I see this as I go around the country, are about having good financial management and good leadership, both of which are crucial. I know that the FE commissioner and my team in the Department for Education will continue to work closely with the hon. Lady to make sure that we get the right solution for Hull.

PSHE Lessons: Problem Gambling

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10. If he will take steps to ensure that the dangers of problem gambling are taught in PSHE lessons. [905254]

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At the beginning of the year, we invited views through a call for evidence on the status and content of personal, social and health and economic education, and we spoke to a range of expert groups. We are considering the evidence we have gathered, and we will make an announcement on the subject later in the year.

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Will the Minister work with Gamble Aware and other problem gambling charities such as YGAM—the Young Gamblers Education Trust—to ensure that schoolchildren understand gambling and the dangers of gambling addiction, especially given that the Government, wrongly in my view, currently allow 16-year-olds to gamble on the national lottery and scratchcards?

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Some schools already choose to teach about the dangers of gambling in their curriculum—for example, in their PSHE provision. During the recent call for evidence, we heard from a number of problem gambling charities, including Gamble Aware, and we are considering the evidence that they submitted.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the provision of integrated user-friendly programmes is crucial to delivering good PSHE in primary schools, and will he recognise the work of organisations such as 1decision and Headway, which I have the pleasure of hosting in Parliament today?

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I very much hope that those organisations will respond to the call for evidence; we are keen to hear from organisations with expertise in this area. We are consulting on the content of relationships education, and we will respond to the consultation shortly.

Kinship Carers

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11. What support the Government provide for kinship carers. [905255]

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The Government recognise the important role that family and friends play in caring for children who are unable to live with their parents. We have set clear duties on local authorities to support children living with family or friend carers, regardless of their legal status.

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I find that answer particularly interesting because that tells me that the Government are doing absolutely nothing. Three quarters of kinship care families experience severe financial hardship. Does the Minister agree with me that kinship carers should get the same rights and allowances as foster carers, and will he take a first step by agreeing to discount tax credits from the benefit cap for kinship carers?

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Kinship carers actually have access to benefit entitlements in the same way as birth parents.

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On Friday night, I held a crime forum in Corsham, and outreach to carers and parents by schools was regularly discussed. Corsham high school already employs a person to do this outreach, and a lot of charities also work in this space. Are there any plans by the Government to review support and to share best practice, which can encourage social mobility?

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As part of our social mobility action plan, we are looking at all these issues. I would be very happy to discuss them with my hon. Friend.

Disabled Students’ Allowance: Self-contribution Charge

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12. What assessment he has made of the effect of the self-contribution charge of £200 under the disabled students’ allowance on trends in the level of students applying for that allowance. [905256]

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Official data shows that there were 4,600 fewer English full-time undergraduate students receiving equipment from disabled students’ allowances. This is expected, because we knew the numbers would fall once students had to pay £200 towards the cost of computer equipment. Evaluation of the impact of this change is currently under way.

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The truth is that the number of students in receipt of the disabled students’ allowance for essential equipment has fallen by nearly 30% since the £200 up-front fee was introduced. Given that this charge is clearly preventing disabled students from accessing the essential equipment they need to further their studies, will the Minister commit today to reversing that £200 fee?

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I think the hon. Lady misunderstands the situation. The fact that the number of students who are accessing the £200 has gone down does not mean that they are lacking in equipment. The truth is that computer ownership is now common among all students, with students spending on average around £250 on computers. As DSAs are not intended to cover all student costs, we think it is reasonable to ask students to contribute towards the cost of computer equipment.

Social Mobility Action Plan

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13. What steps he has taken to improve social mobility since the publication of the Social Mobility Action Plan. [905257]

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18. What steps he is taking to improve social mobility. [905262]

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Social mobility is at the heart of our programmes and my own priorities. We have announced a number of steps, including delivery plans for a further six opportunity areas, and a pilot scheme to help parents improve their children’s early language and literacy skills at home.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. As we rightly pay tribute to the amazing Dame Tessa Jowell, who pioneered Sure Start centres, is now not the moment for us to come together across this House and recognise that boosting the early years is the route to social mobility in this country? Even George Osborne said that to the Education Committee the week before last. Will the Secretary of State work with me and others in the all-party parliamentary groups to look again at how we restart the Sure Start programme and to give life to maintained nursery schools, which do so much for quality early education in some of our most deprived communities?

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We absolutely come together in recognising the fundamental importance of the early years. I am afraid it is all too depressing a fact that, from what happens from age zero to five, so much is predictable of what will happen in later life. Addressing that involves a number of different strands, one of which is what happens in the home, and that is perhaps what has had least attention hitherto. The work of children’s centres is also important, and there are over 2,000 children’s centres across the country. It also matters what happens in childcare and early years settings, and we now have many more young disadvantaged children—71% of eligible two-year-olds—benefiting from the 15 hours at age two.

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I congratulate the Government on the additional funding that they have made available for the expansion of grammar schools, especially since grammar schools have traditionally been the mode by which many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds have been able to improve their education chances. To access funding, what steps must schools take to show that they are genuinely improving access to academically gifted youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds?

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That is an incredibly important question. Northern Ireland has a particularly strong record on educational outcomes when we look at the international tables. The right hon. Gentleman asks specifically what schools need to do to bid into the capital fund for selective schools. They would have to submit a fair access and partnership plan and, at a minimum, commit to prioritising pupil premium pupils in their admissions criteria. They would also have to re-examine their admission or testing arrangements and undertake outreach to support access for disadvantaged pupils.

Childcare Settings: Financial Viability

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14. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Government's policy on funded childcare on the financial viability of childcare settings. [905258]

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15. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Government's policy on funded childcare on the financial viability of childcare settings. [905259]

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By 2019-20, we will be spending an extra £1 billion annually on higher funding rates to deliver 30 hours of free childcare. The rates are based on our review of childcare costs, which was described as both thorough and wide-ranging by the National Audit Office. We have commissioned new research to understand providers’ current costs.

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According to Ofsted, the number of childminders dropped once again in the last three months of 2017. We now have over 15,000 fewer childminders than there were in 2012. Does the Minister believe that funding levels have played a part in this dramatic drop-off? If not, how does he explain it?

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We are spending record amounts on childcare—£6 billion in total. If we look at parents who got their 30 hours of childcare for three and four-year-olds, we see that 377,000 codes have been issued for the summer term. The system is working.

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Evidence to the Treasury Committee shows that the Government’s scheme is making childcare cheaper only for those already using it and failing to bring parents into work. How have Ministers created a system that pushes child carers into poverty and out of business, and prices out the poorest families in most need, like those in north Liverpool?

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Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised that I disagree with those words. A lone parent has to earn just over £6,500 and a couple just over £13,000 to be eligible for the 30-hours three and four-year-old offer. The Secretary of State spoke about the two-year-old 15 hour disadvantage offer and that same 15 hours for three and four-year-olds as well. The evidence is clear that the money is being targeted at those who are in most need.

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The latest evidence that the 30-hours policy is underfunded came in the shape of a survey of providers conducted by the National Association of Head Teachers. It showed that a quarter of providers believe that 30-hours children have displaced three and four-year-olds who are entitled to only 15 hours of free childcare—the children most likely to be disadvantaged. Will the Minister tell us whether this was in the plan for this policy? If not, does he not agree with the chorus of voices telling him it is time to relieve the financial pressures on providers so that the poorest children do not miss out?

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This year, we will be enhancing our annual survey of childcare and early years providers with more detailed research on provider finances and childcare costs. This will provide us with robust, up-to-date evidence on childcare costs. I remind the hon. Lady that funding to local authorities for three and four-year-olds, delivered through the early years national funding formula, has increased from £4.56 to £4.94. As of April 2017, our funding rate to deliver the entitlement for two-year-olds increased by 7% in every local authority.

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We move on to Topical questions. I give notice to the House that I would like to move on to tributes to Baroness Jowell at 3.30 pm, so it is important that colleagues are either characteristically or uncharacteristically, as the case may be, brief.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [905270]

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Last week I announced the drive for more good school places at selective schools, free schools and faith schools, alongside others, to meet local demand and to strengthen partnership between independent schools and the state sector. This will build on our investment in creating over 800,000 new schools places since 2010. Great education is all about great teachers, and this month I announced plans for a clearer system of accountability, freeing up teachers to focus on what really matters in the classroom. If children arrive at school struggling with language they are at a disadvantage and that hampers social mobility, as we were just discussing. I have announced two new schemes to help to close the word gap, including a pilot to provide practical tools to parents and funding for local authorities to share good practice.

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Currently, Scottish universities receive about £560 million research and development funding from the UK Government. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to guarantee that investment post-Brexit and to support spin-off companies spreading wealth across the UK?

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In the industrial strategy we have set out a long-term ambition to raise UK investment in R&D to 2.4% by 2027, and our guarantee of Horizon 2020 funding for UK participants remains in place.

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A hard Brexit could see Scotland miss out on millions of pounds in European research funding, damaging the success of our universities. The Universities Minister said that we will not participate in Horizon 2020’s successor programme at any price. Will the Secretary of State tell the House how much would be considered too much?

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We have to look at this and consider value for money. My hon. Friend the Minister is absolutely right to say “not at any price”. The UK, including Scotland, remains an extremely attractive destination for these research projects.

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T2. What support has the Department provided to schools to help them to address cost pressures? [905272]

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The Department provides a range of support to schools, including a national deal to help schools to save money on such things as energy, where there is a 10% saving, or photocopiers and other computer equipment, where there are savings of up to 40%. We are also providing buying hub advice in pilots in the north-west and the south-west and a new framework from this September to help to drive down the costs of agency supply staff.

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Does the Minister agree that the unintended consequence of the Progress 8 assessment system, as The Times Educational Supplement put it this week, is that all the losers look the same—they are schools in white, working-class areas with high levels of pupil premium. On the current measures, this will result in Ofsted having no choice but to downgrade these schools, compounding the teacher recruitment and retention crisis, and putting off prospective academy sponsors. What action is the Minister taking?

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Actually, Progress 8 carries widespread support in the sector. It is a far better method of assessing schools than the previous method—five or more GCSEs of A* to C—because it measures progress and takes into account the starting point of pupils when they start secondary school. We think it is a good measure. We are looking at some of the details of the outliers when we calculate Progress 8, and we will have more to say on that in due course.

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T4. The Minister will have read the Education Committee’s report on the Government’s Green Paper on children’s mental health. Does the Minister agree with the Committee that there needs to be specific, distinct proposals to enable looked-after children to access mental health services? [905274]

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That is a really important question. We are piloting new approaches to mental health assessment for children in care. The pilots seek to address concerns about the current mental health assessment for children and young people entering care, and to build on the recommendations of the expert working group on mental health.

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T3. Almost one in three children at secondary school in the north-east attends a school judged to be “inadequate” or “needing improvement”. Rather than chucking money at grammar schools, when can we expect to see action to drive up standards and tackle education inequality in regions such as the north-east? [905273]

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to identify the challenge in the north-east—a region with particularly strong primary schools and early years settings, but with more of a challenge at secondary school. She is absolutely right that we need to work doubly hard, and I look forward to working with her.

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T5. I have seen the enthusiasm for apprenticeships from firms in Ashford improve markedly in recent years, which is great, but I hope Ministers agree that the quality of apprenticeships is as important as quantity. Is my right hon. Friend in discussion with the Institute for Apprenticeships about how to enhance the quality of apprenticeships? [905275]

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My right hon. Friend the Skills Minister is in very regular contact with the IFA, and I also met it last week. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) is absolutely correct to identify that if we are going to make the step change that we need in the skills and productivity of this country, it is going to be all about driving quality.

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T8. As chair of the all-party group on art, craft and design in education, I welcome the Government’s recent announcement of extra funding for the arts. However, will the Minister explain what benefit that would bring to the majority of children who are missing out on arts education because of funding cuts, as evidenced by the recent BBC survey on this issue, especially as the new money went to the gifted and talented? [905279]

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Yes, the money we announced was for those schemes, but we are spending £500 million between 2016 and 2020 on music and arts in our schools. We value music and the arts in our schools—they are hugely important—and those schools with the best academic results also tend to have very strong arts, music and sports facilities and offer as well.

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T6. English universities are soon to start advertising for courses that start in 2019, after we have left the EU, and the courses will run after the transition period. Will the Minister provide an update on the fee status that will apply to EU students on those courses? [905277]

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As ever, my hon. Friend is spot on with her question. Institutions and students need information on the support students are entitled to. We will be making information available for the 2019-20 academic year as soon as possible.

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Will the Minister for sixth-form colleges be willing to meet me to discuss some of the financial and capital needs facing Britain’s best sixth-form college, St Dominic’s in my constituency?

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I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman.

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T7. I welcome the work the Government are doing to promote mental health in schools, but could my hon. Friend advise me on what steps the Government are taking to support the mental health of students at university and in further education? [905278]

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The issues of mental health in our universities are extremely concerning, and I am working with the National Union of Students on its plans. Universities UK’s step change project, which calls on higher education leaders to adopt mental health as a strategic priority, is an important one, and one I support.

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Will the Minister confirm that when the hated 1% pay cap is lifted, the balance will be paid entirely from central funds and will not be foisted on to the schools themselves?

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The Government’s position is clear: the public sector pay cap is no longer in place and we have adopted a more flexible approach to public sector pay. We have asked the School Teachers’ Review Body to use this flexibility to target the next pay award to promote recruitment and retention.

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What more can be done to help companies such as Turnock Ltd in my constituency and its owner, Gordon Stone, who has apprentices busy making Christmas lighting for cities and towns across the country?

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I congratulate the firm on my hon. Friend’s patch and am delighted it has apprenticeships. The National Apprenticeship Service is there to help at any time.

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On Monday 7 May, one of my constituents was stabbed in a local park. Today, he would have been sitting his GCSEs, but instead he is in an intensive care unit in a London hospital having undergone life-saving surgery. Does the Secretary of State agree that my constituent, having been a victim of a serious knife crime, should not suffer now or in later life as a result of not being awarded GCSE grades, and will he put pressure on the exam boards to allow my constituent to be awarded the grades he was predicted to get?

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All our hearts go out to the hon. Gentleman’s constituent and his family. I do not know what is possible, but I will meet him as a matter of urgency, if he wishes, to discuss the matter.

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What changes is the Minister considering to ensure that the apprenticeship levy can be used to fund the type of training schemes and shorter courses that employers are demanding and which will help to get more people back into work?

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The apprenticeship levy is designed to make sure we get the money into training and end-point assessment and is critical to driving up quality. One year of 20%-off-the-job training for apprenticeships will ensure a rise in the quality of training.

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I am sure that a brain of the brilliance of the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) can produce a question of fewer than 20 words.

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Whitworth School in Spennymoor has had to close its sixth form. What is the Minister going to do about it?

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I hesitate to say I can change the world, but I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady to discuss the details and make sure we protect the needs of learners in her constituency.

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West Oxfordshire schools are frequently small and rural. What is being done to help them?

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My hon. Friend will know that the national funding formula contains a sparsity allocation of more than £20 million for schools in rural areas, particularly small schools, to help deal with the problem he has rightly highlighted.

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On Friday, the University of Chester Academies Trust wrote to its staff at two schools in my constituency, University Academy Kidsgrove and University Primary Academy, to announce savage cuts. Will the Minister meet me and other colleagues with UCAT schools in their constituencies immediately to talk about an urgent solution?

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The schools Minister and I will be delighted to meet the hon. Lady.

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Has the Minister given any further consideration to my call for a review of the pupil premium to ensure it is an even more effective tool for fostering social mobility?

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The pupil premium is a really important structural tool to make sure that funding is skewed towards those who need it most. We keep it under review, taking advice from the Education Endowment Foundation, and I promise my hon. Friend that we will continue to do so.

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What progress has been made towards the development of a memorandum of understanding between the devolved and UK Governments clarifying how higher education institutions in Wales will be accorded adequate representation in UK Research and Innovation structures?

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UKRI has been launched to bring together work done in our universities alongside business and will be a bridge to engaging in interdisciplinary and collaborate research. I am happy to discuss the hon. Gentleman’s needs further with him.

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In the light of information obtained recently by the National Deaf Children’s Society, will the Government review their funding decisions as a matter of urgency to ensure that an entire generation of children with special educational needs are not let down?

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This Government have launched the most ambitious reforms of special educational needs and disabilities provision in a generation, and are committed to improving outcomes for children with SEND, especially those who are deaf as well.

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I recently met secondary headteachers in my constituency who told me that they were almost at breaking point as a result of cut after cut after cut. When will the Government fund all our schools properly, for the sake of all our children?

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Funding for our schools is at the highest level that it has ever been, and we have committed ourselves to protecting per-pupil real-terms funding for the system as a whole over the next couple of years. I recognise that there have been cost pressures on schools, and I am committed to continuing to work with them to do what we can to bear down on those costs.

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Time is short, but I wish good luck to all the young people who are starting their standard assessment tests and GCSEs this week.

The Government claim that they have increased funding per pupil in my constituency. Does that increase take account of inflation and national pay increases for teachers and staff?

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As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we are spending record amounts on school funding: £42.4 billion this year, rising to £43.5 billion next year. We recognise that there have been cost pressures on schools, and we are giving them a range of help and advice on how to deal with those pressures. For instance, there are national schemes for buying energy, computers and other equipment to help schools to manage their budgets at a time when they are having to do so.

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How does the Secretary of State expect local authorities to retain special services for vulnerable children, let alone share them, when they have faced—on average— 40% cuts in total funding in the last eight years?

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We have made £200 billion available to local authorities in the spending review, and high-needs funding has actually risen from £5 billion in 2013 to £6 billion this year.

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In the last few weeks, we have tragically seen the deaths of another three students at Bristol University. What are the Government doing to ensure that the NHS and universities work more closely together to improve student mental health services?

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I am aware of the tragic deaths of students at Bristol University. The Government’s Green Paper on mental health for students—that is, children aged between 16 and 25—is focusing particularly on how tertiary education and the NHS can join up their services to prevent such tragic incidents from happening again.