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Topical Questions

Volume 670: debated on Monday 20 January 2020

I would like to address the claim in news reports that data from the Department’s learner record service has been shared with a commercial data broker. I reassure the House that my Department does not share any data with the commercial data broker in question and, indeed, the data broker has removed its claim that we do so. Instead, an education training organisation, in breach of its agreement with us, wrongly provided information on learners from our learner record service, which we created to support individual learners and increase their future opportunities. It was a completely unacceptable abuse of information, and we have immediately stopped the firm’s access and ended our agreements with it. The Department has begun a full investigation, and any provider found to be in breach of its contracts will have its agreements and access immediately removed.

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), responded half-heartedly to the question on free school meals, so I give the Secretary of State another opportunity to clear up the point. About 400,000 schoolchildren in London alone are at risk of food insecurity. When will the Government adopt universal free school meals to end this injustice and ensure that every child can reach their potential?

I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the answer given by the Under-Secretary to Question 7. I thought she answered it with gusto and passion.

This Government are absolutely committed to helping children from the most vulnerable backgrounds. Schemes such as breakfast clubs and holiday activity clubs, which have been trialled in the past year, are making an enormous difference to so many young people. The hon. Gentleman should fully represent that next time he asks a question.

T5. I have been working with a group of parents in my constituency to set up an Islamic faith school as a free school. Sadly, Harrow Council has been obstructing them. Will my right hon. Friend set out what the Government are doing to encourage and enable parents to have faith-based schools on a free school basis if they so wish? (900268)

On both sides of the House, we all recognise the important role that religious and faith organisations play in our education system. It is saddening to see the political ideology of Harrow Council getting in the way of opportunities for young people. It is shocking to think that the council wants to deprive young people in Harrow of the opportunity to get the very best, and I will certainly write to the chief executive to get assurances that the council is not letting political ideology get in the way of opportunities for the young people of Harrow.

The National Day Nurseries Association published research last week showing that three quarters of local education authorities underspent their early years budget in 2018-19, with Surrey County Council having an underspend of £5 million. I am curious to know where this money is going and whether councils are using the money to plug the gap in overstretched SEN budgets. Does the Minister agree that this demonstrates there is a problem in how the dedicated schools grant is being implemented? Does he also agree that, if money has been set aside to give children the best start in life, it should not be used to plug the gap in other parts of the budget?

It is for local authorities to decide how they allocate funding to providers in their local area. I am very happy to look at the issue the hon. Lady raises. We have announced a £66 million increase in funding for early years, which is a good settlement, for the year before we come into the spending review period.

T7. The all-party parliamentary group on independent education will hold an event in Parliament on 11 February to celebrate the almost 11,500 partnerships between independent and state schools. What steps is the Department taking to make sure that schools have the support and the resources they need to form meaningful partnerships? (900270)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on independent education. He is absolutely right to allude to the many unpopular and damaging proposals in Labour’s election manifesto, particularly when it comes to education. We should be working with the independent sector, not seeking to outlaw the freedom of parents to spend their money as they wish. I would be delighted to join him on 11 February to celebrate the many successful partnerships between the state and independent sectors.

T3. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.A significant proportion of teaching staff in our higher education institutions are casualised. Is the Minister aware of the University and College Union report published today, which illustrates this culture of fixed-term and casual contracts? Will he join me in welcoming the changes at Lancaster University? After extensive negotiations with the UCU, Unite and Unison, a new policy has now been agreed that commits Lancaster University to using indefinite contracts, wherever possible. What is he doing to change the culture of casualisation in higher education? (900265)

I thank the hon. Lady for rightly raising an important question. I have seen the UCU’s report, which demonstrates that approximately 70% of early-career researchers are on fixed-term contracts. There are also zero-hours contracts, and I am extremely concerned by the findings. I want to ensure that, as part of our strategy towards hitting 2.4% of GDP being spent on research and development by 2027, we respect our early-career researchers, which is why I have supported the concordat on early-career research. I call on all universities to reconsider very carefully the sustainability and the opportunities of our early-career research system, because these individuals who are doing their doctorates and doing research at an early stage of their career will be the future researchers and scientists we need in this country.

T8. Schoolchildren in Stafford have raised the issue of period poverty with me. Will the Minister update us on when period products will be available in schools and colleges, as per the Government’s announcement today? (900271)

I am delighted to announce that schools and colleges in England can order free period products from today, and orders have already been placed. No young girl should have her education disrupted or should miss parts of her education due to something as normal and regular as a period, and I am delighted that we are now giving access to those products for free.

T4. I would like to take issue with responses given earlier by Ministers. May I point out that Durham County Council did not receive any of the funding allocated by the Department to provide holiday activities and meals for disadvantaged families? More than 7,000 children, 40% of children in my constituency, live in poverty. Is it not time we applied an old Labour principle and prioritised the resources for the areas of greatest need? (900266)

This was a pilot scheme rolled out in a number of areas right across the country. With changed representation in County Durham, I imagine that there will be a much stronger voice for County Durham in making sure that it gets things to happen. I look forward to meeting Members of Parliament from County Durham to talk about what opportunities they can deliver for their county.

Last year, Bramhall High School head Lynne Fox received a Pearson award for her success in turning around the school, which had previously required improvement. With some of the top results in the borough under their belt, staff and parents expected a good verdict at the subsequent inspection, just weeks later, and so they were stunned when Ofsted found that the school was still requiring improvement. Apparently, this was partly based on a revised view of schools where the duration of level 4 is extended. Hundreds of parents have complained to Ofsted and the head is set to resign. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the implications of the Ofsted inspection changes, and perhaps visit the school to meet the hard-working staff and pupils?

T6. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the recommendations of the Augar review will be taken forward, to end the prolonged uncertainty? When can universities expect a Government statement on this? (900269)

Philip Augar and his independent panel have made thoughtful recommendations on tuition fee levels, loan repayment, and the balance of funding between universities and further education. We are considering the report carefully but have not yet taken decisions on the recommendations. I can now announce that the Government will conclude the review alongside the next spending review, which will allow government time to consider the recommendations thoroughly and to respond in a way that provides the sector with clarity about the future of post-18 education and training.

Will the Minister update us on what support children with special educational needs receive, in respect of improving inter-agency co-ordination in order to provide prompt support and interventions?

We totally understand the importance of inter-agency working, which is why we established the education, health and care plan system in the first place and why we are undertaking a SEND—special educational needs and disability—review. Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspections look at the effectiveness of joint working in local areas, and we are strengthening our support and the challenge for areas where SEND services do need to improve.

T9. As nursery schools in my constituency are threatened with closure, may I ask the Secretary of State what assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for local councils to fund children’s services and nursery provision? We cannot have nurseries close like this. (900272)

As I said, we have just announced £66 million of extra funding for the coming financial year, which means 8p an hour for early years providers in most local authorities. In addition, we have also announced a £60 million top-up for maintained nursery schools. We continue to monitor the marketplace to ensure that there is sufficient provision, and we keep that under review, but, as I said, a £66 million increase was agreed for the coming financial year.

It has been proposed that pupils at Broadfield Specialist School in my constituency relocate to Hameldon Community College in Burnley. Is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State willing to work with me and others on the proposed move, to ensure that our children receive the best education and the support they need?

We understand that Lancashire County Council is consulting on the proposed change as part of a strategy to create an additional 60 special-school places in the local area. When such changes are proposed, the council must go through a formal consultation process. In doing so, it must take into account the views of all those affected by the proposal.

Children from poorer backgrounds are four times more likely to suffer from a significant brain injury, either in their very early years or in their teenage years. If they do not get the right neurorehabilitation, there is a real danger that the effects will not be known until a year later, when the school completely misunderstands what is happening because of neurocognitive stall. Will the Government meet me and others who are interested in the subject to try to make sure that we put a proper package around every single child who has a brain injury, so that they really stand a chance in life?

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member, who has done a great deal of work to raise the issue, and take learnings from him. When it comes to SEND, our focus is not on the condition but on the child’s individual needs. I want to understand what the hon. Member thinks we could do better to help children.

The Secretary of State started topical questions by describing the improper release of 28 million records of students and schoolchildren. That serious breach of privacy and data protection was made even more serious by the fact that the data appears to have been used to get even more young children hooked on gambling. One problem in this policy area is that the companies involved view the fines as just the cost of doing business. Through the Secretary of State, may I say to the Information Commissioner that I hope the fine in this case is many multiples of the profit made? I hope the Secretary of State will have his Department sue the company concerned for breach of practice.

We take the abuse of this information incredibly seriously. We have referred the matter to the Information Commissioner and we hope that the Information Commissioner takes the most strident action so that such breaches never occur again.