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Topical Questions

Volume 682: debated on Monday 12 October 2020

The Secretary of State is not here. Perhaps we will hear the supplementary question, as we have no further detail.

For students in the Black Country, T-levels and technical education will be a vital part of our story when coming out of this crisis. My further education providers are committed to ensuring that we get this right, but there is some concern about the work experience time allocation element. Will my hon. Friend meet me and representatives from my fantastic FE college, Sandwell College, to discuss how we can ensure that this system works for students in the Black Country?

T-levels are a fantastic initiative that the Government have rolled out, and I will certainly speak to the Skills Minister and meet my hon. Friend to discuss how this issue can be sorted.

The shadow Secretary of State can now ask two questions to whichever Minister would like to take them.

Perhaps I could start by asking the Schools Minister a question, since he is here. The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that every child would return to school in September, and I support him in that ambition. Being safely back in school is best for children’s wellbeing and learning. Latest figures show that one in 10 pupils are out of school, as bubbles and year groups are forced to isolate whenever a child or a member of staff tests positive for covid. Worryingly, attendance at special schools is down at just over 80%, and some teachers report that parents are withdrawing their children altogether to home-school them.

We are not even at the start of winter, yet hundreds of thousands of children are already having their learning disrupted. We all agree that a functional test and trace system is crucial to keep teachers and children safely in schools. How many pupils and staff are currently waiting for a test result or are forced to isolate? Why have the Government not included school pupils on the list of priority groups for testing, as the schools Minister promised?

Teachers and headteachers up and down the country have done a tremendous job of getting children back to school, and 99.8% of schools are open in this country. In special schools some 80% of children with education, health and care plans are in school, and we kept schools open for children with EHC plans throughout our tackling of the pandemic. We have a very successful test and trace scheme, which is why we are able to pinpoint local outbreaks, and why we have statistics about outbreaks up and down the country. By the end of the month we intend—

Order. I say to those on both Front Benches that topical questions are meant to be short and punchy, not full-blown questions. If people want full-blown questions they should ask them earlier. I have to get through topicals. I call the shadow Secretary of State to ask a question to the Secretary of State.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. On 1 October, he said that people must be given

“the opportunity to retrain and upskill”—[Official Report, 1 October 2020; Vol. 681, c. 541.]

but it has now been announced that his Department will be scrapping the union learning fund, which supports hundreds of thousands of learners each year, many with little or no formal education. That scheme benefits workers, our economy and business, so getting rid of it must be either astonishing incompetence or playing shameless politics with people’s life chances. Which is it, and will the Secretary of State rethink this wrong-headed initiative?

It probably wasn’t worth the wait, Mr Speaker.

It is very kind of the hon. Lady to read out the press release that the TUC sent her, but the reality is that we are investing more in skills and further education than ever before. That is why we are investing over £1.5 billion in capital in further education. That is why we are investing more in level 3 A-level equivalent qualifications. That is why we are driving opportunities forward. I will not apologise; if we think we can spend money that was previously channelled to the TUC in a better way to deliver more opportunities in our colleges, yes, we will do it in a better way, and that is what we are doing.

May I just say that the Secretary of State will apologise to the House, because it was rather discourteous of him to disappear?

Many large companies that are net contributors to the apprenticeship levy are in the process of making redundancies among apprentices because of the downturn with the pandemic. In sectors such as aviation, we see valuable engineering apprentices being made redundant by big names such as Virgin and Ryanair. Will my right hon. Friend look with the Treasury at whether, for a limited period only during the pandemic, instead of making apprentices redundant, struggling sectors could use the apprenticeship levy to pay apprentices and to keep them employed and developing their skills? (907405)

Mr Speaker, I apologise for being a little late. I got waylaid by a colleague asking a question outside the Chamber, and I did not realise the speed at which you were working through the Order Paper; it was so much more efficient than the last Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) raises a really important question about apprenticeships and ensuring that we support youngsters who may find themselves in a situation with the company that they are working for where they are not in a position to complete their apprenticeship. That is why we are working very closely across Government to put in place measures to ensure that if a youngster, or anyone of any age, is in a position where they would not be able to complete their apprenticeship, they can do so, and to support employers to continue to take on apprentices. That includes the up to £2,000 that employers can benefit from by taking on apprentices.

I was delighted to hear last week that the Scottish Tories now support the Scottish National party’s policy on free university tuition. I am sure the Secretary of State will welcome that U-turn, but can he confirm that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill will not undermine the ability of the Scottish Government to set university fees in Scotland, or to continue providing free university tuition?

The hon. Lady seems always to miss the point that we live in a United Kingdom of four nations together, where there is one single market, and that we have to ensure that there is efficient and proper use of that market so that all four nations properly benefit.

In my constituency, our secondary schools are near full capacity. With bigger year groups to come as the population of Cornwall continues to grow, will my right hon. Friend work with me to explore the option of a new free secondary school for the children of my constituency? (907406)

My hon. Friend raises such an important point about the importance of having the right provision in Cornwall for her constituents. When I visited her constituency, I saw how she was campaigning so hard to get the very best for all her constituents. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss this further and to discuss how best to ensure that we deliver the brilliant provision she is always rightly fighting for.

By the end of this year, Stoke-on-Trent will have completed a 104-km city-wide full fibre network capable of gigabit speeds. We have the ambition to create a UK-leading digital academy in Stoke-on-Trent that offers something truly unique to young people, like the BRIT School in London does, and to have every school and college across Stoke-on-Trent connected to the full fibre network. Does my right hon. Friend share my excitement at this opportunity, and can he help us make it a reality? (907407)

I do not just share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm; I am right there with him, cheering it on and making sure that it happens. I pay tribute to him and other brilliant Conservative colleagues in Stoke-on-Trent, including of course the Conservative leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Councillor Abi Brown, who has been driving this forward so hard. We want to see all schools having that connectivity and the benefits that the internet can bring for every single child in our schools.

I was at Chorlton High School in my constituency on Friday, where over a third of pupils have either no or very limited digital access. It is a similar pattern across Greater Manchester. More laptops are fine, but they are no good without decent broadband, so what more can the Government do to guarantee—perhaps with the internet providers—broadband access for pupils who are out of school during this emergency? (907411)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. When we looked at the provision of support for children, especially the most disadvantaged, we were looking at the equipment not just in terms of laptops or tablets, but the routers that go with them. We have also been working, along with colleagues from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, with major internet providers on how we ensure that that provision is available for all youngsters across the country.

Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking all the schools across Wolverhampton for the exceptional job that they have done in the hardest of conditions and, when time permits, will he join me in visiting King’s, Woodthorne or other great schools in Wolverhampton? (907408)

It looks as if I will be spending the day with my hon. Friend as we tour Wolverhampton, which would be an absolute delight. I look forward to joining him in doing that. Let me take the opportunity to thank not just those teachers, support staff and parents but, most importantly, the children, who have ensured that the return of schools has been such a success, with so many children getting back to school and having the opportunity to learn. Despite the efforts of some, this has been a success, and children are the ones who are benefiting more than any others.

Some 1.7 million children across the whole of the United Kingdom have no access to a desktop, laptop or tablet devices for learning while away from school. That is the scale of the digital divide in this country. The impact of that will be with us for some years to come. What are Ministers doing, along with their colleagues in the devolved Administrations, to ensure that we close that gap once and for all? (907418)

We take this issue very seriously. We have already supplied 220,000 laptops and tablets to schools and local authorities up and down the country—one of the biggest procurements of computer devices in this country. We have plans in place for another 250,000 laptops, and £160 million has been spent ensuring that people have access to the internet should they need to self-isolate. However, at the moment, 99.8% of schools are open and 90% of pupils are in school learning with their teachers.

The Secretary of State claimed that more funding had gone into education than ever before, but he will know that real-terms funding for further education colleges has fallen by 9% since 2013-14 to 2018-19. Will he meet me and Warwickshire College Group to discuss its financial situation? (907422)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, Chris White, who is involved in the Warwickshire College Group and has already made representations to me on this matter. We recognise that the college sector plays an important role. That is why we have been increasing the rate of support and funding. We will continue to work with the sector to ensure not just its future stability but its future success.

My right hon. Friend has done great work making thousands of laptops, tablets and 4G routers available to disadvantaged school pupils; however, colleges such as Kirklees College in Dewsbury do not qualify for the scheme and have to use their own funds to support their students. Does he recognise that these are tough times for colleges, and will he assure me that he will continue to look at ways to support them? (907412)

That is why we have given extra flexibilities to colleges and made learner support funds available for devices and to cover connectivity costs, which is an issue that some students have faced. Further education must be at the heart of our recovery from this pandemic, as it is able to reach into many communities that, in the past, have been left behind. It will not only create life chances and opportunities for many young people, but will drive productivity across all parts of the United Kingdom. To ensure that we deliver on that, I look forward to working with my hon. Friend, who is a passionate advocate of further education colleges not just in his constituency but across the country.

I hope the Secretary of State is aware of the Children’s Commissioner’s recent report, “Unregulated”, about children in care living in unregulated, semi-independent accommodation. Next month I am introducing a ten-minute rule Bill that seeks to regulate the supported housing sector. I urge him to speak to his colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to see whether we can all join together to support such vulnerable people. (907423)

The hon. Lady speaks, rightly, with a passion and conviction on this issue that I share. We want to see this ended; we want to see this changed. It is not something that we can allow to continue. She will be aware of the Department’s consultation on the issue, and we look forward to publishing the results in the not-too-distant future. This is incredibly important, as these children are from some of the most vulnerable backgrounds in the country, and we have a duty as a state to do everything we can to protect them.

The purpose of the Office for Students is to ensure that

“every student has a fulfilling experience of higher education”.

In the light of the current difficulties faced by undergraduates, will the Secretary of State commit to a post-covid review of the OfS?

I will work closely with the OfS to ensure that it is working with universities and that universities are delivering what students expect and require for their studies. We will always work closely with all government organisations to deliver the very best for students and ensure that universities deliver on students’ behalf.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.