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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
20 January 2020
Volume 670

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Childminders: Recruitment and Retention

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1. What steps he is taking to increase (a) recruitment and (b) retention of childminders. [900238]

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Childminders provide a quarter of a million childcare places, and 95% are rated either good or outstanding by Ofsted. As such, they make a huge contribution to our society and play a valuable role for many parents. We have worked to make it easier for childminders to set up their businesses and offer Government-funded early education entitlement places.

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The Early Years Alliance has stated that the Government’s £66 million of extra funding for early years offers will have a “negligible” effect for providers, who are facing substantial increases in operational costs every year. Will the Secretary of State therefore commit to a large and sufficient increase in core funding for early years providers, including childminders, in the upcoming Budget?

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The Chancellor outlined our commitment to put more money into early years, and the hon. Member highlights the extra £66 million that has been put into it. We have seen an expansion of the Government’s support for early years, raising the number of free hours from 12.5 to 15 to 30 and supporting children from the most disadvantaged communities. We will continue to look at this and have discussions with the Treasury.

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In addition to childminders, nurseries such as the Madresfield Early Years Centre in my constituency provide a wonderful setting for young children. Can the Secretary of State provide reassurance that, where we are increasing pay for some of the lowest-paid workers in our society, those nurseries will be compensated for that when we reimburse them for free childcare provision?

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My hon. Friend highlights the important role that the private sector and many organisations play in providing great settings for early years care. That is why we put an extra £66 million into the sector. It is too early to comment on negotiations with the Treasury, but I note her comments.

Looked-after Children: Out-of-area Placements

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2. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of looked-after children in out-of-area placements as a result of the unavailability of a place in their home local authority. [900239]

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13. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of looked-after children in out-of-area placements as a result of the unavailability of a place in their home local authority. [900251]

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We know the challenges that local authorities face when making placements. The child’s best interests should always come first, so safety and suitability of a child’s care placement is our priority. Moving a child out of placement is a last resort, unless it is in the child’s best interests.

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The Minister clearly does not understand the reasons for the increasing use of out-of-area placements. It is because of a lack of resources to meet the needs, and these children are going into out-of-area placements in unregulated care that is not registered with Ofsted, without the support they need. It is also because of a lack of available places in their area. It is a massive problem. The Minister clearly does not understand that the increasing use of out-of-area placements, and particularly unregulated supported living, has left more children at risk of not receiving the appropriate health and social care and support from Government and the police, and at risk of exploitation by criminals. This is happening—not just in my constituency, but in Conservative Members’ constituencies.

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I will do my best to answer that comprehensive question. I can assure the hon. Member that both I and the Government take this matter seriously. However, out-of-area placements can be in the child’s best interests if they are at risk of exploitation or if they need specialist provision. We have been addressing the supply of the care sector. In fact, we have invested over £200 million in innovation funding and over £500,000 to try to bolster the number of foster carers. I draw her attention to the care review that we pledged to do in our manifesto, which will look at the entire care system.

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Three years ago, instead of increasing children’s care home capacity in England, the Government introduced legislation that forced vulnerable children from England to be placed in Scotland. In 2018, over 70 children were moved, some over 300 miles away from their home, their family and their support networks. Can the Minister tell us exactly how the local authorities with caring responsibility for those children living miles away are discharging even their most basic statutory obligations, and is she entirely content to preside over this deliberately cruel and harmful legislation?

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I believe the hon. Member is referring to a case where a number of out-of-area placements were made in Scotland. We have recently put £40 million extra into capital funding for secure homes, but the whole point is that this is a very complex issue that needs a comprehensive care review—that was part of our manifesto—and I have already begun to work on that.

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There is an increasing number of children in care, with the latest figures showing nearly 80,000 children in care in England alone. What steps is my hon. Friend’s Department taking to reverse this trend?

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My hon. Friend is quite right. The number of children in the care sector is a worry both to me and the Government. That is why we have a number of initiatives to support families to stay together. We have spent £70 million on supporting families and £84 million on strengthening families for this very reason[Official Report, 3 February 2020, Vol. 671, c. 2MC.].

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May I welcome my neighbour to I think her second outing at the Dispatch Box? She graces it. I agree with the two hon. Ladies who asked the question that of course it is important that looked-after children should be kept within the local authority—as close to home as possible. But does my hon. Friend not agree that, on some occasions, actually it might be beneficial for the children to be moved to a neighbouring local authority that is close by still, but none the less rather better than the one they are being brought up in?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is quite right: sometimes, it is in the best interests of the child to be placed out of the area. The important thing is that we have a child-centred policy that is always placing their best interests first. They could be at risk of sexual exploitation and gangs, or need specialist provision.

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One of the most important responsibilities of Government is to protect and support children in care. However, we now know that, over a decade ago, there was a terrible failure to do so in Manchester: at least 57 children, almost all girls, were victims of child sexual exploitation. I welcome the report from the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, on Operation Augusta and the work of Jennifer Williams from the Manchester Evening News. We must learn the lessons from these terrible events and ensure they never happen again. So can the Minister tell me what the Government are doing in the wake of these revelations and, most importantly, what support is being offered to the victims and survivors?

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The great tragedy and announcements that have come out of Greater Manchester are awful, and my heartfelt thoughts go to anybody affected and their friends and family. Things have moved on since then. As the hon. Member pointed out, this is over 10 years ago. Since then, the most important reform that we have made is to link up agencies, including health, police and local authorities, so that we can have a combined approach to deal with these issues.

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I thank the Minister for her response and I am sure she agrees that we should ensure that such a scandal cannot happen again. At the last election, as she mentioned, both parties agreed to a review of the care system, so can she tell the House when that review will begin and what will be included in its terms of reference?

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The wholesale care review was a central part of the Conservative party manifesto and we are committed to ensuring that we get this right. It will be comprehensive, but at the moment I am working on the scope and setting it up. I think that the important thing is ensuring that it delivers for all children within the system, and preventing more from becoming part of the system.

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

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3. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of teacher (a) recruitment and (b) retention. [900240]

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There are over 453,000 teachers in our schools, 12,000 more than in 2010. Postgraduate recruitment to teacher training is at its highest level since 2010-11, and just under two thirds of teachers who started teaching six years ago are still teaching today.

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That means that one third are leaving, which is a high attrition rate. We know that pay freezes are one reason for that, but also the crushing workload. Just in Chester this morning, teachers have told me about the crushing workload that is driving teachers out. What is the Minister doing to reduce that workload, take pressure off teachers and let teachers teach?

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Since we conducted the workload challenge survey in 2014, we have worked hard to reduce the unnecessary demands on teachers’ time, whether that is cumbersome marking practices or excessive data collection. Since 2016, teachers’ working hours have fallen by five hours per week, according to the second teacher workload survey, which measures teachers’ own reporting of their working hours. There is still more to do—the hon. Gentleman is right—but this success so far demonstrates the seriousness with which we take excessive workload and the effectiveness of our early initiatives.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the Government’s important commitment on starting salaries, the new early career framework and finally some good news, as he mentioned, in the autumn on teachers’ workload, now there is a positive proposition to be made for people to join this the most noble of professions?

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for his work in his years as Secretary of State for Education. It was a pleasure to work with him during that period. He is right—the School Teachers’ Review Body has recommended a 2.75% pay rise for teachers across the board, and we are also proposing a £30,000 starting salary for teachers from 2022. In addition to the £26,000 tax-free bursary, teachers of maths, physics, chemistry and languages who start their training this September will receive early career payments of £2,000 in each of their second, third and fourth years of teaching. So this is a good time to start training as a teacher. It is a worthwhile profession and I encourage all graduates to consider teaching as a career.

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The Minister surely knows that the pay rise he mentioned will only return starting salaries to where they were in 2010. Furthermore, the prospect of a pay rise in three years’ time will do nothing to help schools that are struggling now to recruit new teachers. Does not he accept that the so-called “pay rise” is nothing more than papering over the cracks in this recruitment and retention crisis?

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I do not agree. We are living in a very strong economy, with the lowest level of unemployment for more than 40 years and demand for graduates is strong. We are responding to those pressures. As I said earlier, we have recruited the largest number of graduates into teacher training. I have announced the salaries for teachers when they finish their training and start teaching; 2022 is the right date for that salary increase. The average pay of a headteacher is £70,100 a year, and it is £36,200 a year for a classroom teacher. This is a good time to join the teaching profession and I urge Opposition Members to talk up the attractiveness of that profession and not continually to talk it down.

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Those who serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces represent the very best of British. What is being done to turn troops into teachers when veterans leave the armed forces?

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My hon. Friend raises a good point. Veterans make attractive members of staff in our schools, they inspire young people and help to improve behaviour. Our Troops to Teachers scheme was slow to begin with, but it is now proving successful in recruiting Army leavers.[Official Report, 4 February 2020, Vol. 671, c. 3MC.]

Children from Disadvantaged Backgrounds

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4. What assessment he has made of the educational attainment of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. [900241]

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5. What progress he has made on closing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. [900242]

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Against a background of rising standards, the attainment gap has closed by 13% at primary schools and by 9% at secondary schools since 2011. Most disadvantaged pupils attend good or outstanding schools, and 86% of schools are now rated as good or outstanding, which is up from 68% in 2010.

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Nottingham schools have made the significant strides in attainment, to which the Secretary of State refers, but massed within that, in less well off and less diverse communities, is poor attainment for boys. What specific interventions will the Department make to support schools to improve outcomes for white working-class boys?

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The hon. Gentleman highlights an important issue. One group that universities are most unsuccessful at recruiting from is white working-class boys and that is something we need to address. That way to do that is by continuing the reforms that the Government have introduced and continuing to drive standards, and by ensuring that academic rigour is there for every pupil. We must support those children by ensuring the very best teaching and support for every child.

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Across the Windsor constituency, which stretches from Eton as far as Warfield, we have some fantastic schools and colleges, from primary to secondary and beyond. One of the Government’s greatest ambitions seems to be to close the attainment gap, so that any child from any background can get a decent education. Does the Secretary of State agree that to continue closing that gap we must ensure that there is a range of schools, colleges, apprenticeships and university places, so that students and parents can make choices for themselves about what suits them?

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My hon. Friend raises the vital point that we have to have a range of different tools to be able to ensure that children succeed. At the core of that is making sure that as many children as possible achieve and deliver on what they need to do in terms of English and maths, while ensuring there is a range of different opportunities as they progress through their schooling career. The Government have introduced a number of initiatives, including T-levels, and a changing approach in terms of apprenticeships, which will give so many young people the chance they deserve and need.

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Does the Secretary of State have in his mind that, as child poverty is now rising and due to rise to 5 million by 2022, there will be more disadvantaged people who need more help? What are the Government going to do about that?

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Through initiatives such as the pupil premium and the extra money we are putting into special educational needs, and the fact that we are levelling up education funding across the country, we on the Conservative Benches recognise the important role education plays in delivering opportunities for young people. That is what we are delivering for all children in this country.

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Children from disadvantaged backgrounds in my Havant constituency benefit from the national school breakfast programme. What support is my right hon. Friend giving to that programme to expand it so it reaches more children?

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We are giving £35 million towards supporting that incredibly important programme, which is having such an impact not just in the constituency of Havant but in so many constituencies across the country.

Pupil Premium

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6. Whether he plans to review the operation of the pupil premium. [900244]

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The pupil premium ensures schools receive extra money to benefit disadvantaged pupils who need it most. Schools are helped to make effective decisions and good use of the grant by the Education Endowment Foundation’s research and guidance. The Government remain convinced of the effectiveness of the pupil premium in helping to narrow the attainment gap and are committed to this policy.

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The House of Commons Library has confirmed to me that there has been a £220 million real-terms decrease in the total amount of spending on the pupil premium since 2015. Schools in my constituency have together lost about £1 million, with the worst-affected losing almost £40,000 a year. In its recent manifesto, the Conservative party did not repeat its previous commitment to protect the pupil premium. So can the Minister tell the House today what the Government’s policy actually is? Will they retain the pupil premium and restore it, or will it simply be left to waste away?

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The pupil premium is for any pupil who has qualified or has been eligible for free school meals in the last six years. It is £935 for pupils in secondary schools and £1,320 for pupils in primary schools—some £2.4 billion a year. Since 2011, we have allocated more than £15 billion to schools to help to narrow that attainment gap. We have the lowest level of unemployment for over 40 years, so there will be different eligibility for free school meals, which depends on the benefits system. When there is a higher level of employment, fewer people are eligible for the benefits system.

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A recent survey by the Sutton Trust suggested that 30% of headteachers were using the pupil premium for general funding in their budgets. What studies are the Government doing to ensure that the end result of the pupil premium is good outcomes for students?

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The Education Endowment Foundation has produced a very good guide for schools on how to use the pupil premium in the most effective way to narrow the attainment gap. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spelled out the fact that we have closed the attainment gap by 13% in primary schools and 9% in secondary schools. Between 2011 and 2018, there was an 18 percentage point increase in the proportion of disadvantaged young people taking the EBacc combination of core academic GCSE subjects; the subjects that provide the widest opportunities in later education, training and career choices.

Free School Meals

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7. What his policy is on free school meals. [900245]

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Free school meals play an important role in ensuring that disadvantaged children receive a healthy nutritious meal every school day. I assure the hon. Member and the House that the Government are committed to the provision of free school meals for children from homes that are disadvantaged on low incomes—it is of the utmost importance.

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I thank the Minister for stating the Government’s policy on free school meals and getting that on the record. Given how beneficial free school meals are for reducing inequalities and improving children’s health and attainment, will she mirror Labour policy and extend free school meals to all primary school children?

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We already provide free school meals to 1.3 million children and 1.4 million infants. This policy is targeted at the most disadvantaged, which we personally believe is right, as it ensures that they have the very best start in life and a nutritious meal every school day.

Children Entering the Care System

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8. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of children entering the care system. [900246]

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Both I and the Department are concerned about the number of children in care, which has increased by 21% since 2010. That is why we have a multi-tiered approach based on trying to keep families together, improving the supply of each type of care so that it can be child-focused, including work to bolster the number of foster carers, and placing an emphasis on permanence. We recognise the scale of the challenge and the importance of getting this right, which is exactly why we are conducting a care review.

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I am delighted that the Government are going to conduct a comprehensive review of the care system; that is very welcome. The Minister has urged local authorities to prioritise adoption. Does she agree that stability and permanence can be achieved by a range of different care provision, such as kinship care and long-term foster care, and that the circumstance and the needs of the individual child should determine the best option for them?

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Absolutely. I believe that the system needs to be child-focused. My hon. Friend will have noted that in my letter to local authorities last week, I highlighted other forms of permanence, including kinship care and special guardianships in particular. However, let us not forget that 41% of children with a placement order have not been placed in an adoption setting within 18 months. This is not acceptable and I am determined to bust the myths around adoption, including regarding race and religion, so that we can help those children into permanent, stable homes as quickly as possible.

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Too many children in the care system are being placed in unregulated hostels, as we have heard, without the support that they need to keep safe. Lance Scott Walker was killed aged 18 when we was placed with a young person with schizophrenia who chased him out of a window and stabbed him to death. In another hostel, a young person on bail for murder was placed with a victim of child trafficking, who he got involved in drug dealing. We know that children are at risk right now. We do not need to wait for a review to find that out, so when will the Government properly regulate all housing where vulnerable children and young people are placed?

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This is something that we are committed to getting right, and I am working with Ofsted, local authorities and the Children’s Commissioner to tackle it. While there is and always will be a place for semi-independent living within our system, I cannot imagine a circumstance where that is acceptable for under-16s. Currently, all local authorities must ensure that their placements are suitable, and my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary recently wrote to all local authorities about that. To be clear, unregistered settings where care is provided are illegal and Ofsted conducted over 150 investigations of those last year.

Free Schools and Academies: Planning Policy

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9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government on ensuring that the development of free schools and academies is not restricted by planning policy. [900247]

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Officials have worked with their counterparts in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government on all aspects of planning policy for new schools and existing academies. New national policy and guidance sets out the positive approach that local planning authorities should take in the assessment and determination of planning applications for schools.

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Since its launch in 2014, the Gatwick School has been very successful and is looking to expand its capacity, but it is coming into difficulties—there are suspected ideological differences—with Crawley Borough Council planners. What advice can my right hon. Friend give to the school so that it can overcome that obstacle?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s commitment to the schools in his constituency and his support for the Gatwick School in particular. As he said, the Gatwick School opened in 2014 and is providing good school places in Crawley, with its EBacc entry level significantly above the national average, for example. Officials are engaged in the planning process to achieve permission from Crawley Borough Council, which will enable us to deliver the permanent school accommodation and facilities for pupils.

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In those conversations with local authorities, will the Minister also talk to them about current children’s social services practice to make sure that the deep lessons of the Greater Manchester review are learned and that practice is changed so that vulnerable children never again have wrong assumptions made about them?

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The hon. Member will be aware of the review of children in need. It highlights the importance of schools being aware of those children who are known to social workers and who have particular problems so that we can make sure that they get pastoral support in school and that expectations remain as high for them as for other pupils in the school.

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Free schools have been a huge success—I mention Michaela Community School, which I co-founded and chaired, and which I know the Ministers are familiar with—but too many parts of the country are without access to one. What plans do the Government have for increasing the number of free schools and has the Minister read my recent report “Fight for Free Schools”, published with the Centre for Policy Studies, which has some useful ideas for how to achieve to that?

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I will certainly read my hon. Friend’s report, and again I pay tribute to her for what she has achieved with Michaela Community School. The free schools programme as a whole is hugely successful and she can be assured we are committed to continuing it. In 2019, seven out of the top 15 secondary schools in terms of progress 8 scores were free schools, including three in the top five: Eden Boys’ School in Birmingham, Eden Girls’ School in Coventry and of course Michaela Community School in Brent.

Further Education

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10. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for further education. [900248]

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Further education is a crucial sector that needs more investment to deliver its full potential. That is why the Government have committed to putting an extra £400 million into 16-to-19 education in 2020-21.

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It has been estimated that there is a pay gap of more £7,000 between teachers in schools and teachers in FE colleges. Does the Secretary of State agree that the current Office for National Statistics classification of FE colleges as non-profit institutions serving households—NPISH status—is hindering the ability to address this growing pay gap?

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I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that colleges in England are independent and able to set their own staff terms and conditions. We have committed to extra funding for those colleges into the next financial year and continue to back them with more funding through investment and capital.

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My right hon. Friend knows from his own experience the importance of further education, but he has also seen the excellent education and training provided at Dudley College. What assurances can he give that such colleges will have the funding resources they need for the roll-out of T-levels to make this scheme a big success?

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My hon. Friend raises a valuable point about how vital T-levels are for the success of our colleges and the whole education system. We have committed £500,000 a year to support the roll-out of T-levels plus capital investment. Dudley College is a magnificent institution that we are turning into an institute of technology. We are rolling out 20 of those across the country. We want people to understand how vital our colleges are to delivering the world-class education, technical and vocational, that this country needs.

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More than three quarters of sixth-form colleges do not believe they have the funding they need to support disadvantaged students. The FE sector, the Education Committee and the Labour party speak with one voice in supporting the Raise the Rate campaign to increase per-pupil funding to £4,760. Despite warm words from the Secretary of State, the funding needed has not appeared. He talks about it being a crucial sector, so when will he make good on his promise to work hand in glove with the FE sector by both restoring the position of FE and Skills Minister and raising the rate to £4,760?

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I welcome the hon. Lady to her position and wish her the very best in her new role, although I thought she was a little ungenerous in her comments. Just in the past six months, we have delivered an extra £400 million for 16-to-19 education; committed an extra £1.8 billion to FE colleges’ funding; and created a national skills fund to be delivered over three years, worth more than £3 billion. In my judgment, that is a lot of money and a real investment in our college sector. We are giving them the opportunity to achieve so very much. We see the opportunity and have every confidence they will deliver.[Official Report, 4 February 2020, Vol. 671, c. 4MC.]

EU Educational and Research Programmes

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11. What plans he has to ensure UK access to EU educational and research programmes after the UK leaves the EU; and if he will make a statement. [900249]

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The Government greatly value international co-operation in education, science and research. The withdrawal agreement protects the continuation of both Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020, and we will seek to participate in the relevant future EU programmes as part of future negotiations. Many of these programmes, or the regulations, simply are not ready yet. The political declaration makes the position absolutely clear. As for participation, it is a matter for the upcoming negotiations.

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Institutions across Scotland, including the University of Glasgow, receive some of the highest per capita shares of Horizon 2020. They will understandably be worried by the comments of the Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, who has said that the UK will be treated as a third party, and that there will be no cherry-picking in any new deals for programme participation. Will the Minister tell us what that means in terms of potential new barriers for institutions such as those in my constituency?

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I have enormous respect for the University of Glasgow and its excellent vice-chancellor, Anton Muscatelli, who is the author of a report on how to spread innovatory practices across Scotland. I am learning a lot from that work.

I am determined that we should work towards association with Horizon Europe, the successor to Horizon 2020, but we need to know what the final regulations are. I am in regular contact with ministerial equivalents across Europe. Earlier this morning I had an opportunity to speak to the higher education and research Minister of Croatia, which currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union, at the Education World Forum. I am determined that, as we proceed with the wider negotiations, Horizon Europe should be part of that.

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The sector has repeatedly expressed concerns about our future participation, or potential non-participation, in Horizon Europe. We have been told by the Prime Minister and his Ministers that they intend to remain, or that “we hope to remain, but not at any cost”. When can we have absolute clarity? The sector needs it now, as do the EU researchers and academics who work in our higher education institutions.

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I can absolutely confirm the Government’s commitment to research and development, and our wider commitment to doubling the R&D budget. We will spend a record amount on R&D for the future as we seek to become a global science superpower. When it comes the Horizon budget, we obviously want to work at pace to ensure that we can look at association. The association articles have yet to be fully developed, and we need to work with the EU on that. We are not alone in this—Switzerland, Norway, Israel, South Africa, Canada and many other countries are keen to associate themselves with Horizon Europe—but we must wait for the development of those articles. We will respond shortly to the Smith report, prepared by Sir Adrian Smith and Graeme Reid, which sets out alternatives to Horizon Europe.

As I have already said to the hon. Lady, I view this very much as a hub-and-spoke approach. I want association with Horizon Europe to be the centrepiece of our innovation strategy, but I want us then to build on that through future international co-operation.

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Many of the countries that the Minister has just mentioned also participate fully in Erasmus. The future relationship with the EU has yet to be decided, as was confirmed by the Secretary of State when he said that Erasmus

“will be a question for further negotiations”.—[Official Report, 14 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 912.]

However, at Prime Minister’s questions last week, the Prime Minister said:

“There is no threat to the Erasmus scheme, and we will continue to participate in it. UK students will continue to be able to enjoy the benefits of exchanges with our European friends and partners, just as they will be able to continue to come to this country.”—[Official Report, 15 January 2020; Vol. 669, c. 1021.]

Who was correct, the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State?

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When it comes to Erasmus+, as the hon. Lady well knows, we have a current programme that will run until 2021. The whole House had an opportunity to vote for the withdrawal agreement, not once, not twice, not three times; it had a fourth opportunity on Second Reading of the Bill, and a fifth on Third Reading. That withdrawal agreement protects our participation in the Erasmus+ scheme.

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Does it?

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It absolutely does. It is not just the Government’s withdrawal agreement; it is the EU’s withdrawal agreement. Our determination to protect and stabilise our participation is crucial. It has been destabilised by other Opposition parties which have tried to vote down the withdrawal agreement over the past year or so. As for future negotiations, the Erasmus successor scheme, its protocols and its regulations have not yet been prepared. We do not know the overall cost of the programme, and we do not even know what it will look like. However, we will go into the negotiations in good faith, seeking to participate in that future Erasmus programme.

T-levels

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12. What progress his Department has made on the introduction of T-Levels. [900250]

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We have made excellent progress, and we remain on track for the introduction of T-levels this September. We have selected awarding organisations to deliver the first 10 T-levels, and we continue to work closely with providers to ensure that they are ready for first teaching, including through additional funding and training.

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The T-level is a wonderful example of how this Conservative Government are planning to bring back advanced vocational and technical training, providing stability and life-long skills for a new generation of workers in jobs that probably do not exist yet. As the courses are rolled out in England, will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging the Welsh Government to observe progress and look into whether T-levels could be introduced in Wales, so that students in my constituency can also benefit from them?

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I know that my hon. Friend is already distinguishing himself as a strong voice for his constituents and that he wants the very best for them. He recognises that what we are investing in T-levels across the border could bring real benefits to many of his constituents. We know that some of the major employers in his area, including Airbus, will be looking for the very best type of qualifications. It is incredibly important that Governments—not just the UK Government but the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments—work closely together to ensure that we get the right skillset across the whole United Kingdom. Co-operation and collaboration are the absolute essence of achieving that, and I hope to do that with the Welsh Government as well.

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Is the Secretary of State aware that, in the dark old days when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, we believed in evidence-based policy, from early years right through to FE and HE? What research has he done into the efficacy of T-levels? Are they working? Does he still have a research facility in his Department?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I would also like to thank those on the Opposition Front Bench who worked closely with us on the development of T-levels. This is one of the only reforms this Government have embarked upon that they supported. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have not started T-levels yet, but we will understandably be looking at them closely to ensure that they are delivering what we expect them to deliver. He will no doubt also welcome the fact that we set up the Education Endowment Foundation because we were conscious that the previous Labour Government often engaged in policy without any evidence whatsoever, and we did not want to make the same mistakes.

Good School Places

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14. What steps his Department is taking to increase the number of good school places in England. [900252]

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Delivering good quality school places is a top priority for this Government. We are on track to create 1 million places between 2010 and 2020, with 920,000 already created. That is the largest increase in school capacity at least two generations. As at August 2019, 86% of schools inspected by Ofsted were rated good or outstanding, compared with 68% in 2010.

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A huge number of new homes are being built in my constituency, and parents are genuinely worried that the school places to accommodate them will not be built in time. What assurances can the Minister give me that that is not the case?

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We are providing funding to local authorities for every place that is needed, based on local authorities’ own data. In addition, when future housing developments are driving pupil numbers, we expect the local planning authority to negotiate significant developer contributions to help to meet the demand for new schools. In our manifesto, we committed to amending planning rules so that the infrastructure, including schools, comes before people move into new homes. I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about this issue, and I would be happy to meet him and his local authority to ensure that the right action is being taken in his area.

Student Finance: Students from Low-income Backgrounds

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16. What assessment he has made of the effect of the student finance system on students from low-income backgrounds. [900254]

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The current student finance system removes financial barriers to those hoping to study. The Government review support for students annually, and we have recently announced a 2.9% increase to maximum grants and maintenance loans for the 2020-21 academic year. This takes support for the lowest-income students to record levels.

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In 2010, like thousands of other young people, I argued against the tripling of tuition fees, but the Government ignored us, and I currently have around £50,000 of student debt. I have here my latest student loan statement, which says that the interest added in the past year alone was £2,022.65. Can the Secretary of State look me in the eye and tell me that it is fair that working-class kids who want an education are being forced to take on colossal debt while his Government is led by a man who went from the playing fields of Eton to a free education at Oxford—

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Order. We are going to need short questions.

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Students pay nothing back until they start earning £25,725 a year, and that will rise to £26,575 from April 2020. It is important to understand that the number of people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university has risen by 62% since 2009, and the Government are committed to looking at interest rates in future as part of the Conservative manifesto’s proposals.

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As a working-class lad who went to university and who voted against the tripling of tuition fees, I urge my hon. Friend to ignore the class warfare of the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana). Was not the one thing I was wrong about in that 2010 vote that it would put working-class kids off, because the evidence is that it has had the exact opposite effect?

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I thank my hon. Friend for making that essential point. Participation has risen year on year. Individuals are going through the school system, increasing the standard of their skills, and deciding that they want to take up HE as a route to future opportunities. However, we recognise that there must also be future opportunities within the FE system, which is why we want to ensure that every pupil in the post-18 education system is able to benefit for the future.

School Funding

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17. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of funding for schools. [900255]

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We are investing more in schools over the next three years, with an additional £2.6 billion in 2020-21, £4.8 billion in 2021-22 and £7.1 billion in 2022-23, when compared with 2019-20. That money will allow schools to invest more in teachers and resources to ensure that all children get the top-quality education they deserve.

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Every secondary school in my constituency has been judged by Ofsted to require improvement. We have seen various Government initiatives come and go, but when will the Secretary of State get to grips with the scale of the challenge at secondary level right across the north and bring forward a far more ambitious and properly funded plan to tackle it?

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It is troubling that the hon. Lady’s constituency has such a large number of schools that are not achieving at a good or outstanding level. We recently launched an educational multi-academy trust in the north-east known as the Falcon Trust to take over some of the most difficult and challenging schools and to instil in them the type of leadership and ability that can turn them around. The Government will look to expand and grow that much more rapidly, because no community should suffer from not having good or outstanding schools. We will not rest until we ensure that we do everything we can to deliver for children in schools in her constituency and many others.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900263]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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Last year, Bramhall High School head Lynne Fox received a Pearson award for her success in turning around the school, which had previously requirement 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?

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Yes, I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the standard of education in that school.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.