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Topical Questions

Volume 641: debated on Monday 14 May 2018

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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 that as well.

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)

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.

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?

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

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 to deal with the problem he has rightly highlighted.

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?

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.