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Education and Training (Welfare of Children) Bill

Volume 673: debated on Friday 13 March 2020

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

All children, no matter what their background or which education and training provider they choose, deserve a safe environment in which they can learn. I am sure that every Member of this House can agree that nothing is more important than safeguarding our children and promoting their welfare. The Bill would ensure that all young people were protected by the same safeguarding, whichever education or training provider they chose.

I am proud to have the outstanding New College Durham in my constituency, which is one of the best further education colleges in the country. I will take a moment to highlight its continued success in the field of technology. It is one of few institutes of technology in the country and we can all congratulate it on that. Like all further education colleges, it has a legal duty to ensure that the education and training it delivers protects its students. It also has a legal duty to consider any guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The college is doing an excellent job of promoting students’ welfare and I am sure that it will continue to do so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing such an important and considered Bill and I am pleased to co-sponsor it. As a governor of Luton Sixth Form College, I know how crucial the extension of statutory safeguarding arrangements is to ensure that all young people in further education get the best in life. Does she agree that, given the increasing level of mental health issues among our young people, it is important that all those in post-16 education are protected by equitable safeguarding protocols to ensure they receive support and have the best possible chance of succeeding in their studies and training?

I thank my hon. Friend for making an important point. I know from a recent visit to New College that it takes the mental health of its students very seriously indeed. However, not all young people in my constituency pursue further education through New College. Others choose to do an apprenticeship delivered by a training provider. In the last academic year, 50 students under the age of 19 started an apprenticeship in my constituency. Those apprentices could be training for a career in health and social care, supported by Northern Care Training, an independent provider. They could also be working towards a career as a plumber with South West Durham Training, another independent provider. I was concerned to find out that legal safeguarding duties do not apply to apprentices when their training is delivered by independent providers in the same way as they do for those at an FE college such as New College. While safeguarding requirements are a condition of independent providers’ funding, those providers’ apprentices are not protected by the law in the same way. That is clearly wrong and something must be done about it. It is vital to protect the welfare of our constituents and that is why it is so important that the Bill passes.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the Bill to the House. On a related point, does she agree that the inclusion in the Bill of T-level providers underlines the importance of that option in education and that they should be considered of equal merit to more academic qualifications?

I agree. T-levels are an extremely important part of our education system. They will be rolled out a lot more in the coming years. In fact, I was about to cover T-levels in the next part of my speech; the hon. Member read my mind.

As New College Durham will be one of the first colleges to provide T-levels from September, this is of vital importance to my constituents—I am sure it is to the hon. Member’s constituents, too, and to those all over the country. However, the legal safeguarding duty that protects T-level students will vary, depending on the provider that the student chooses. As MPs, we have a duty to ensure that safeguarding laws apply to all children equally. That is not currently the case. I ask hon. Members for their support to help me to fix this loophole in the law.

My Bill would correct the existing inconsistencies in safeguarding arrangements by extending the legal duty to cover all publicly funded providers of post-16 education. This will directly impose legal safeguarding on 16-to-19 academies, and make the Secretary of State for Education directly accountable for ensuring that all funding agreements with specialist post-16 institutions and independent providers include proper safeguarding duties. The Secretary of State will also be directly responsible for ensuring that funding agreements with apprenticeship and T-level providers include safeguarding duties. This is especially important, because there will be 113 new T-level providers over the next two years, but this expansion can only happen safely if the right safeguarding duties are in place.

These issues are not party political. Across England, the Bill will place safeguarding duties on an estimated 30 16-to-19 academies, 100 specialist post-16 providers and 1,000 independent providers. The Bill will help to ensure that all young people have the same safeguards and protections under the law.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent Bill, which I am sure my colleagues fully support. I am passionate about ensuring equality of opportunity after the age of 16, as well as before. Children with special educational needs or on the autistic spectrum do not stop having safeguarding issues at the age of 16. Does she agree that these proposals are excellent for equalising opportunity and ensuring that support is in place for further education, so that everybody has the chance to succeed?

I totally agree, and that is one of the reasons that this Bill is so important. There are likely to be more children and young people—some who are the most vulnerable in our society—who do not go down the academic route, but pursue the new T-levels in some of our colleges. The hon. Member has made a really important point, and it is why we really need to pass the Bill.

My Bill will ensure that all young people have the same safeguards and protections under the law, regardless of which education or training provider they choose. I believe that safeguarding responsibilities are too important not to be protected by the law, and I hope that the House will join me in safeguarding our young people and giving parents the peace of mind that they deserve.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on proposing to close an important loophole that she has identified. I enjoyed her speech and her warm words about an important institution in her constituency; Durham is an important city of learning at all kinds of different levels.

I also welcome the new Minister to her place. There is a nice irony here, because the Minister is living proof of the importance of technical and vocational routes. She is proof that people can get to the highest jobs in the country without having been to university at the age of 18; she has done it through work. She is the perfect person to take through this legislation, which I believe is her first Bill. On a day in which we have discussed levelling up, it is nice to see the Minister for levelling up on the Front Bench—just to wind up Opposition Members even more.

The hon. Member for City of Durham has identified an important anomaly, which we will hopefully end today by extending the duty to make safeguarding provisions to all providers of publicly funded post-16 education. The Bill brings 16-to-19 academies, specialist post-16 institutions and independent learning providers into the scope of the statutory guidance. Currently, 16-to-19 academies are not legally classified as schools or colleges, and are therefore falling down a gap and not being captured by the statutory safeguarding duties in section 175 of the Education Act 2002. About 20 sixth-form colleges have already converted to become academies, and that number is likely to rise. Members will recall that one reason this is happening is as a solution to the problem that sixth-form colleges face VAT while, of course, schools do not.

There are all kinds of reasons why we should want more 16-19 academies. It is important that we improve the legal framework in which they operate, because we want more of them. Sixth-form colleges are our most efficient type of school. They achieve the highest results for their age group, even though they do not benefit from the £1 billion cross-subsidy that school sixth forms get. It is clear why they are so effective: having 30 pupils in an A-level class is clearly more efficient than having only two or three.

Colleges and sixth-form colleges currently pay VAT, so in a sense they are being discriminated against. The Sixth Form Colleges Association estimates that the average sixth-form college pays around £300,000 a year in VAT. It is therefore very good for them to become academies, which in turn encourages them to work more closely in federation with local schools. However, we cannot allow the growing number of 16-19 academies to fall outside the crucial safeguarding framework for young people.

Although the Bill will close one anomaly, it is not the only one that has grown up around 16-19 academies. Last year, the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) led a Westminster Hall debate on religious protections for Catholic sixth-form colleges that want to academise. The director of the Catholic Education Service, Paul Barber, has said that

“because academisation legislation for Sixth Form Colleges was developed separately from schools, the same safeguards given to schools were omitted for Catholic Sixth Form Colleges”.

I hope that the Minister will move to close that similar lacuna.

Catholic sixth-form colleges say that they are currently prevented from converting to academies because their religious character, which is protected under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, would not be maintained under current Government rules. They suggest that they would lose protections in areas of the curriculum, acts of worship and governance. I hope that anomaly will also be closed.

I must declare an interest, because I benefited hugely from attending a sixth-form college, Greenhead College, which I suspect is already thinking about converting to a 16-19 academy. I can say with certainty that I would not be standing in the House today were it not for that wonderful, life-changing institution. It sounds like New College Durham in that it is offering similarly transformational opportunities to young people in Huddersfield, a town that is very close to the national average but has this wonderful institution that is giving young people opportunities to achieve all kinds of wonderful things in life.

Sixth-form colleges are hugely important institutions that are achieving brilliant results, despite being less well funded than other parts of the education sector. Today we are normalising them further by extending to them the important safeguarding provisions set out in legislation, closing a lacuna that nobody intended to be there in the first place. I benefited from wonderful pastoral care during my time at sixth-form college. Many of these institutions are naturally doing the right thing, but it is essential that we have certainty about the law and about the guidance. I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham again on bringing forward a Bill that I hope will proceed in short order today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on bringing forward the Bill. She has not been in the House for very long, so it is good to see her already using her presence here to make a difference. To be promoting legislation after only a few weeks is quite an achievement and augurs well for the rest of her parliamentary career.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend on identifying such a significant loophole in the existing legislation, and on devoting her considerable energies to seeking to close it. As other Members have said, it is clearly not equitable that legislation on safeguarding does not apply equally to all providers, and that therefore young people who are entering post-16 education or training will get varying legal protections depending on where they are studying. It is clearly not acceptable for that situation to continue.

The Bill will close that loophole by extending the legal duty to all publicly funded providers of post-16 education and training, and it will directly impose the same legal safeguarding duties on all 16-to-19 academies and other publicly funded providers of education and training. That is the right thing to do. This is a small but significant piece of legislation. It closes a loophole. Opposition Members support it and are grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing it forward. I look forward to the Minister offering the Government’s support, so that the legislation can get on to the statute book.

I very much welcome this piece of legislation, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for bringing it forward. Many parents who happen to be watching the House on a Friday afternoon will be surprised that this measure is not already in place. It speaks to the undervaluing of apprenticeships and such forms of education that this issue has not been fixed earlier, so I welcome the Bill.

It is worth dwelling briefly on the fact that “Keeping children safe in education” is a very good piece of guidance to schools, and its extension is important. It is good because it covers issues of safeguarding in the round, rather than looking at one specific thing. It points teachers to training, to provide understanding of the process and of the indicators of abuse. It covers bullying and female genital mutilation, which many teachers may not be as aware of as they are of other things.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning bullying in schools. It is incredibly important that the Government continue to stamp it out, particularly LGBT and transphobic bullying. Does she welcome the fact that 1,800 schools have so far taken part in the Government’s pilot scheme to stamp out LGBT bullying in schools, and would she encourage the Government to do more to ensure that more schools take part in that programme?

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: LGBT bullying in our schools is a scourge, and we need to do all we can to stamp it out.

“Keeping children safe in education” is a very important piece of guidance for schools. The teachers I speak to welcome and praise it, which, as many of us know, is unusual when it comes to guidance for schools. The extension is necessary because schools want it. It gives clarity to apprenticeship providers and new T-level providers. It ensures inter-agency working, which is so important in stopping abuse, and tying together police, clinical commissioning groups and local authorities. We need to deal with abuse in the round, and the extension of the guidance to apprenticeship providers and others is critical.

This will also act as an early warning system when abuse is taking place. The guidance makes it clear that this is not just about intervening when abuse has happened, but about getting in there beforehand. That means being wary and looking out for the signs, and signposting the support that is available to teachers, to ensure that they flag it, so that nothing worse happens to the child.

It is important that we bring in the parents. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, I think many parents will be surprised that this measure is not already in place, but many parents are not aware of the safeguarding procedures in schools and further education at the moment. We all have a role to play in ensuring that they are more aware of those procedures and the support that can be provided by teachers and others in schools.

I also want to make a plea for more training for staff. We all know from schools in our patches that this is becoming more and more of a burden for teachers. There is very good guidance available, and training is mandatory, but the Government could provide more help with the training provided for teachers to ensure that they are fully aware of the support available to them and that this very good piece of legislation is used to its full effect.

I want to start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for bringing the Bill forward. It is vital that we get this done, and it is great to be able to speak in the debate. I am slightly afraid that I may be in an echo chamber with some of my comments. My hon. Friends the Members for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) and for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) have covered a lot of the merits and technicalities of the Bill in front of us, so I want to confine my comments to the merits of the Bill and to my personal experience.

This is quite a personal Bill for me. I am the product of effective welfare and safeguarding at school, and I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute in particular to someone I class as an absolute personal hero of mine, a lady called Helen Bettelley. She went the extra mile for me while I was at school, and she is one of the reasons why I am here now. It was through her care and her understanding of welfare and pastoral care—the importance that it plays in the lives of young people, particularly in the 16 to 19 bracket, which can be some of the most torrid times in a young person’s life—that I am here today. I wanted to put on record my thanks to her at the start of this speech.

I will turn now to the substance of the Bill. I know from my experience—I am sure that many right hon. and hon. Members will be aware of this from their surgeries and interactions with constituents—that we have to get this right. It is as simple as that. The reality is that I quite often get at my surgeries safeguarding issues, welfare issues and concerns that are raised with me by parents about schools, and extending this to independent providers of additional training and education is absolutely vital. The welfare issues we encounter absolutely demonstrate why we cannot leave any loophole in this provision.

What we are doing is really just making sure that what should have been done and what—to coin a phrase—is long overdue is now actually done. It is not that radical; it is just making sure that people in 16 to 19 independent training provision are given the welfare that they deserve. Let me touch on some of the comments made about mental health. When we consider that one in six 16 to 19-year-olds says they have a mental health condition or feels under the strain of mental health pressures, it speaks for itself why it is absolutely vital that this loophole is plugged.

The reality is that many of the parents I speak to in my constituency, whose children may be training with independent providers, often feel quite lost when it comes to the welfare side of things. When they compare the level of pastoral support in sixth-form colleges, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough mentioned, or other further education providers with that of independent providers, they often see that it just is not there. It is absolutely right that we align the legislation properly to ensure that 16 to 19-year-olds get the provision they rightfully deserve.

I want to pay another tribute. In my own area of Sandwell, we are actually quite good at the welfare and stakeholder working side. I pay tribute to Sandwell College, which is based in West Bromwich. Its approach to this is absolutely spot-on, and it chimes with the approach in the Bill. It is a cross-stakeholder approach. It is about saying, “We’re not going to do this silo-ed. We’ve not going to do this contained. We’re actually going to reach out.” As my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks pointed out, it is about getting parents and other parts of the community involved in the wider welfare and safeguarding of these young people.

I want to confine my comments to this: this is absolutely the right thing to do and we absolutely have to get it done. I pay tribute to the fantastic FE providers that have been given a call-out today and who are absolutely getting this right. I say once again that I stand here as someone who has benefited from proper safeguarding and welfare, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will see what we can achieve by getting this right.

I congratulate the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) on bringing forward this Bill. As somebody who was also drawn out high up on the private Members’ Bills ballot a few weeks after I was elected to this House five years ago, I know that, as soon as that result is published, successful Members are not short of advice and suggestions as to measures they might like to pursue, but I think she has chosen extremely well with this Bill. It may seem like a technical Bill, but it could hardly be more important.

What the Bill will deliver is clarity and legal certainty that the safeguarding provisions that we expect to be in place for all our schools should also be in place regardless of the stage of young people’s education and regardless of who is operating that education. As a former school governor at a special school in a local borough council, I know how important it is that no institution—but particularly one that works so directly with children and young people—should ever imagine, “Well, it couldn’t happen here.” Sadly, it almost certainly could. Fortunately, we have some fantastically dedicated and skilled teachers, staff and social workers, working with young people in schools and colleges to try to reduce and minimise the risk as far as possible, but the provisions in the Bill make sure that those protections are extended comprehensively.

As parents and, indeed, as members of society we expect our children and young people to be safe when and where they learn. We expect that, regardless of whether those children are in nursery, primary, secondary or tertiary education. We expect it, regardless of whether those institutions are local authorities, schools, academies or independent learning providers. The Bill will help to ensure consistency, clarity and legal certainty about what is required.

We expect our children and young people to be kept as safe as possible from bullying, which in many instances can have a lifelong and scarring effect, and we expect our children and young people to be kept as safe as possible from even more sinister forms of abuse. By widening the terms of the existing provisions to clarify that they apply to the institutions referred to in the Bill, the hon. Lady, and hopefully the House, will help to make sure that those young people can enjoy the protection and the safeguarding that everybody should be able to take for granted throughout their education. That is why I enthusiastically and without reservation support the Bill this afternoon.

I thank the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) for introducing this important Bill. This is a subject that clearly many of us feel passionately about, particularly the need to safeguard children from many types of harm, including online harm and harm that affects their mental health, such as bullying. I know she has a long-standing interest in this area, and in particular in people’s health and wellbeing.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to today’s debate. Safeguarding of children is one issue that I think all Members agree is extremely important. The Government take it very seriously, which is why we support the Bill. Young people, especially those in their mid to late teens, can be particularly vulnerable. They are in that transitional phase—they are growing up and starting to become more independent, but they are still children in many ways. I am sure many hon. Members will recognise that from their own experience, while others may still have the joy of teenagers to come. It is a difficult time in a young person’s life, and the education landscape is suddenly becoming a lot more complex, with many more different options and important choices to make, which will have an impact on their lives and careers.

The Bill has been described as a technical change to place all Government-funded post-16 providers of education and training on the same statutory footing. As many hon. Members have highlighted, that is important. Whether they are studying A-levels, T-levels, an apprenticeship or other qualifications in a school, college, sixth-form college, 16-to-19 academy, specialist post-16 institute or independent learning provider, it is important that students are safe and that the institution they are in has responsibility for their safeguarding.

Such institutions do have responsibility for safeguarding today, but rather than being buried in contract conditions or other conditions such as Ofsted requirements, having a single statutory guidance note will make it clear and transparent to all what is expected. That is important for parents, students, providers and bodies such as Ofsted. Parents and students in particular should be reassured by the underlying principle of “Keeping Children Safe in Education”. All practitioners must ensure that their approach is child-centred. It means that they should consider at all times what is in the best interests of the child. Safeguarding covers all forms of harm. It covers abuse, whether mental, physical, sexual or online. It covers bullying in all forms. It covers child exploitation, county lines, female genital mutilation and neglect. The “Keeping Children Safe in Education” guidance covers all those areas and more, not only in terms of what providers need to do, but, critically, where extra advice and help can be found. Having one single approach to safeguarding will, I believe, help all providers to know their obligations and where they can get advice to help them to safeguard children.

This debate has shown how strongly we feel about the need to safeguard children. In the interests of time I will not cover all the issues raised, but I would like to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), who raised the academisation of faith schools. It is our ultimate ambition that every school that wants it should have the opportunity to benefit from the autonomy and freedom that academy status can provide. Going forward, we will continue to look for a suitable opportunity to address this issue and level up the playing field.

I want to make three clear points. First, every provider already has some form of requirement on safeguarding. In simplifying the landscape, I agree that the Bill will not place any additional costs or administrative burdens on providers. In fact, it may help them, because it will make it simpler and clearer to understand. Secondly, I feel strongly that the provisions will result in a levelling up of safeguarding, making it clearer for all concerned, whether they are a parent, student or provider, and ensuring that the guidance remains relevant and up to date in a timely manner. Finally, the Bill will result in the need to amend the statutory guidance note “Keeping children safe in education”. We will consult openly and widely with the sector to ensure that the guidance is both appropriate and proportionate.

In closing, I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for City of Durham for bringing the Bill before the House. I congratulate her, as a new Member, on driving forward these important proposals so early in her career. I am sure we will hear a lot more from her. I look forward to visiting the outstanding New College Durham. I thank her again and confirm that the Government will support the Bill.

With the leave of the House, I would like to make some final remarks. I thank every Member who contributed to the debate: the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), the hon. Members for West Bromwich West (Shaun Bailey), for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and for Harborough (Neil O'Brien), my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed) and the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), who made speeches, and my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and the hon. Member for Bury North (James Daly), who made interventions. In particular, I thank them for raising the importance of the Bill for the most vulnerable young people in our society and for highlighting those who might be suffering from abuse or mental health issues or have special educational needs. That is one of the main reasons the Bill is so important. We may sometimes disagree on a few issues, but on this one it seems that we are all in agreement.

The purpose of my Bill is simple. I believe that every child should be protected by the same safeguarding legislation. My Bill would address an anomaly in the current legislation and bring all training and education providers that receive Government funding under the same legislation. I think we can all agree that every young person in education should have the same protections. Apprenticeships form a key part of further education. In the coming months, we will see the roll-out of T-levels. Technical qualifications are extremely important. While my constituency is very lucky to be the home of one of the best universities in the country, academia is not a path for everyone. When done well, technical qualifications offer young people a different option—one that provides both an education and a path to work. The expansion of the further education and training sector must be accompanied by steps to ensure that the welfare of young people is fully protected. Under current legislation, that cannot be guaranteed, and it is our duty as MPs to correct this.

Until this safeguarding oversight is corrected, some parents will not be able to send their children to study with peace of mind. Young people pursue further education to learn and gain employment. Everyone in the House wants to see young people in education and then in work. The young people who currently fall into this loophole are doing their best to prepare themselves for the world of work and to contribute to the economy, and they should be supported in this. The least we can do is make sure they are properly protected. In this matter, we can set aside party politics and put the welfare of our young people first.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, to stand committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 63).