Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 682: debated on Monday 12 October 2020

Education

The Secretary of State was asked—

Educational Attainment

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure improvement in educational attainment in each region of the UK. (907344)

My Department is committed to raising standards across the country and levelling up opportunities for all. Our £1 billion covid recovery package includes a £350 million national tutoring programme targeted at disadvantaged pupils, and we continue to invest in the growth of strong academy trusts to drive attainment in areas facing particular challenges.

In blue wall constituencies such as North West Durham and more broadly across the north of England, it is quite clear that the Government’s lifelong learning announcement will really benefit people and communities disproportionately well, helping our Government’s levelling up agenda. What assessment have the Government made of the impact on earnings of individuals who gain a level 3 qualification, rather than sticking at level 2?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point, because there is so much evidence that if people have an A-level equivalent qualification, the benefits that they will have throughout their life are significant, with an increase of 10% of average earnings for those who gain that qualification. That is why our lifetime skills guarantee is so vital to ensure that people right across the country have the opportunities that we want all our constituents to have.

Educational attainment depends very much on the quality of the teachers. In Scotland, teachers must attain a specified professional standard, which is not necessarily replicated in other parts of the UK. The General Teaching Council for Scotland has raised concerns about the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and its implications for the profession in Scotland, so will the Secretary of State agree to meet the General Teaching Council for Scotland to discuss these concerns?

My right hon Friend is right to delay the exams, as announced today. What assessment has been made of the students who missed learning over the past six months in terms of the catch-up needed for the learning they have lost, and what is the plan, if students are sent home, to ensure that they carry on learning at home online?

My right hon. Friend raises the vital point that we need to ensure that we have continuity of education. I think every Member of this House recognises the value that all children gain from being in school with their teachers and having the opportunity to learn, and that is why issuing the direction of continuity of education and ensuring that schools are held accountable for delivering education even if pupils are having to isolate at home is so incredibly important. We need to ensure that every child, whether they are in the classroom or at home, is getting the education that they require.

Childcare: Parental Access

High-quality childcare supports children’s development and helps parents to work, and we are therefore continuing to bulk-buy childcare hours from the sector at pre-covid levels, even if providers had closed due to the pandemic. Some 708,000 children attended an early years setting on 1 October, which is an increase of about 300,000 compared with the end of the summer term. We have also encouraged schools to ensure that after-school and breakfast clubs are reopening.

Many residents in Hyndburn and Haslingden have contacted me regarding our manifesto commitment to delivering a £1 billion flexible childcare fund to support parents and children with holiday and wraparound care. What progress is being made on delivering on that promise?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important question. We know that families want to be able to access affordable out-of-school childcare, and that is particularly important during the school summer holidays, so our manifesto commitment is to establish a new £1 billion fund from next year to help to create more accessible childcare, including before school, after school and in the summer school holidays. As with all future commitments, this is dependent on the outcome of the spending review, and I hope to be able to update the House with further details following the spending review.

Nurseries in west Berkshire suffered a loss of fee income during the lockdown, and they are now anxious about a reduction in parental demand. They are grateful for the guaranteed funding until the end of this year, but what assessment has my hon. Friend made of the recovery of parental demand, and what assurances can she give the sector for the rest of the academic year?

May I start by thanking childcare providers in west Berkshire and across the country for providing such essential support for our very youngest children? This term, we have committed to block buying those hours from providers, provided that they are open, regardless of how many children are attending, and local authorities should pass that funding on. We are obviously looking closely at the situation from next term, and the future funding will be dependent on the funding review, but the really good news is that attendance is increasing and, on 1 October, the numbers showed that it was about 80% of the pre-covid usual daily level of attendance.

Data from Ofsted shows that the number of nurseries and other childcare providers with coronavirus cases has, on average, been doubling every week since the start of September, yet many early years workers cannot access covid tests or get quick results, which is forcing them to stay at home. I have heard from a nursery in Surrey that has been forced to close as a result, affecting 40 children and depriving their parents of childcare. Will the Minister confirm whether childcare workers still qualify for priority testing? If so, why are they not getting it?

Yes, I can absolutely confirm that education and childcare workers, including those in the early years, are essential workers and have priority access, via the online booking portal. That has been the case since April.

Further Education: Public Transport and Covid-19

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the availability of public transport for young people in further education during the covid-19 outbreak. (907346)

We have been working closely with the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that young people can travel and continue to travel to their place of education during the coronavirus pandemic. We have made £44 million available to fund additional dedicated transport to schools and colleges, and we will announce additional funding shortly.

Does the Minister accept that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that local authorities have the funds available to operate low-cost travel schemes, such as the System One scheme in Greater Manchester? Does she agree that it is unacceptable for the Treasury to simply devolve cuts, which will ultimately have an impact on young people?

Of course we have taken very seriously the issue of ensuring that children can get to school and colleges; there has been not only an extra £2 billion in funding to help people to walk to school and to make it safe for them to get to school, but £44 million for dedicated transport. So the Treasury is putting a lot of investment into this area.

Home Learning: Covid-19

What estimate he has made of the number of school children that did not have access to (a) a laptop or (b) another device to facilitate home learning when schools were closed during the covid-19 lockdown. (907347)

As part of £160 million invested to support remote education, more than 220,000 laptops and tablets have already been delivered, with 40,000 routers additional to that. We are now supplementing this support by making available 250,000 additional devices in the event that face-to-face schooling is disrupted. This represents an injection of nearly half a million laptops and tablets for those most in need.

But from 22 October schools will be required to provide remote education to those pupils isolating because of coronavirus. Ofcom estimates that up to 1.78 million children in the UK have no access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, and this policy will fail them. With less than two weeks until the changes, how can the education of those children be guaranteed? Is it not time to ensure that every child entitled to a free school meal is provided with internet access and an adequate device at home?

The hon. Lady will probably be familiar with our policy and the fact that we have set up support for schools that will have to provide remote education for children, whereby we are making sure that those children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are properly supported by this programme and investment of half a million laptops.

Online Education: Children and Covid-19

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure children who are self-isolating during the covid-19 outbreak receive high-quality online education. (907348)

What steps his Department is taking to help ensure children who are self-isolating during the covid-19 outbreak receive high-quality online education. (907359)

Although the vast majority of children are back in the classroom, we have made 250,000 laptops and tablets available in the event that face-to-face education is disrupted, building on more than 220,000 already delivered to those most in need. We have also made resources available to schools to deliver high-quality online education, alongside the Government-funded Oak National Academy, which is providing video lessons across a broad range of subjects.

What measures are this Government putting in place to ensure that disadvantaged children right across Bolton have extra online support to get them through the winter of covid and put a spring in their step in 2021?

It is vital that students have a spring in their step and that they have access to high-quality remote education, so we have invested more than £160 million in connectivity, devices and support—including more than 980 laptops and tablets to Bolton Council—alongside additional devices delivered to academy trusts. We are now making available 250,000 more devices nationwide in the event of further disruption. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that Bolton schools and academies have already received more than £1 million in their first catch-up premium payment.

Covid-19 has had a detrimental effect on some of the most underprivileged children in our society. My right hon. Friend will remember a Westminster Hall debate in September 2016 on this issue. A white working-class boy—an example who represents a substantial proportion of pupil numbers in Lincoln—is 10% less likely to participate in higher education than any other ethnic group or gender. What is my right hon. Friend doing, and what has he done, to ensure that we close this gap and that the ongoing pandemic does not make the situation worse?

I do remember that important debate that my hon. Friend secured. I share his determination to see the academic attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils—including white working-class boys—and others closed. That determination has been at the core of all our education reforms since 2010, particularly in respect of the focus on phonics in the teaching of reading, the evidence-based approach to the teaching of maths, and a more knowledge-based curriculum. Since 2011, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and others has narrowed by 13% at key stage 2 and by 9% at key stage 4. The £1 billion catch-up premium, with £350 million specifically targeted towards disadvantaged students, is designed to address the widening attainment gaps caused by measures taken to tackle the covid pandemic.

Online Learning: Universities and Covid-19

What steps he is taking to help ensure university students have access to digital and online learning during the covid-19 outbreak. (907349)

The Government are working to ensure that all students have access to digital learning, including by helping providers to draw upon the existing funding of £256 million for the year 2020-21 to go towards the purchase of IT equipment and wider hardship support. The Government expect universities to continue to deliver high-quality academic experiences for all students.

The Secretary of State should have seen the new analysis today that shows that infection rates on university campuses are up to seven times higher than those in surrounding areas. There are fears that this will spread the virus to higher-risk groups in the local community. The Government should have moved teaching online before term started, as the University and College Union recommended. Will the Minister accept the Government’s error in not doing so and instruct universities to move to online learning as the default? Or will she and the Government continue to play Russian roulette with the lives of students, staff and local communities?

The Government have prioritised education. We do not believe it would be right to put students’ lives and academic journeys on hold. Although only a small proportion of university populations have covid, it is an awful experience for every student who is having to self-isolate, which is why it is so important that support—from providing food to mental health and wellbeing support—is there for those students. I was pleased to see the Universities UK statement last week detailing the sector’s commitment to that support, which is in line with exactly what the Government expect.

In the Education Select Committee sitting last Tuesday, the Minister was unable to answer how many students are self-isolating and therefore totally reliant on accessing digital and online learning. She was also unable to answer how many students have covid-19; how we will ensure that tests are available to students; when the two-week late “imminent” guidance, with robust frequently asked questions on students returning home for Christmas, will be published; or even how many students are currently learning only online. What impact does the Minister think her Government’s incompetence and inability to answer basic questions about covid-19 in our universities is having on the spread of the virus in university towns and cities?

I will begin with the Christmas guidance, which is certainly not late—I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that it is important that we get this right. I am working with the sector, with a sub-working group—the taskforce—to identify the issues and ensure that comprehensive guidance is forthcoming. That commitment to students on Christmas remains. Around 9,000 students currently have covid. This is the data that has been sent to us by universities. It is the cumulative number of cases over the past seven days and is based on a student population of about 2 million. Public Health England informs us that 68 universities have outbreaks. We will go back to those universities to ascertain that data and, as of next week, working with the Office for Students, there will be a new data regime, which will be much more transparent.

Children with SEND: Covid-19

What steps he is taking to support children with special educational needs and disabilities returning to school during the covid-19 outbreak. (907350)

Children with special educational needs and disabilities have faced many challenges during the pandemic, and some of them will find returning to school difficult, but the good news is that more than 80% of those with education, health and care plans are now attending. We have published guidance and resources to support schools to re-engage pupils with learning. We are increasing high-needs funding by a nearly quarter—a record amount—over a two-year period and we are also providing an additional £1 billion in catch-up support for schools.

I asked the Education Secretary on 2 July and again on 7 September about support for children with SEND during the covid-19 catch-up. He said that he would write to me, but that letter has not been forthcoming. I ask again: what assisted technology is being offered as part of the distribution of laptops and tablets to enable pupils to work from home if needed? Will the Minister provide an answer this time or will I have to do this again next month?

I am enormously proud of the fact that we are one of the few countries in the world that have asked schools to remain open for vulnerable children, including those with the most severe disabilities. Although we know that they could not all attend due to their own circumstances, it is incredibly important that they all get back to schools. On remote learning, to support schools in delivering remote education, we have delivered a range of resources and guidance, including specific support for children and young people with SEND. Obviously, those who were eligible for laptops, receive laptops and devices as part of that programme.

Access to Education: Local Lockdowns

What steps he is taking to help ensure that access to education for all children is maintained during local covid-19 lockdowns. (907351)

The Department is committed to the continuation of high quality education for all pupils. We have asked that every school plan for the possibility of local restrictions to ensure continuity of education. We have published a direction, which provides an express legal duty on schools to provide remote education where needed.

In our mission to level up, I am keen to ensure that every child has the resources and support that they need to thrive. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the most vulnerable children and those with complex needs, such as the wonderful children at Penn Fields in my constituency, can have everything that they need to thrive during this time?

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is right to highlight the brilliant work at Penn Fields School that serves not only his constituents, but mine as well. I will, if I may, also highlight the wonderful work of Wightwick Hall School, which is in my constituency and also serves his constituents as well. They are doing an amazing job during this pandemic, but it is right to ask how we can support them more. That is why, in terms of covid catch-up funding, the support that we are providing for those special schools is three times the rate of that going to mainstream schools, which recognises the extra challenges that they have to deal with.

A-Levels: Covid-19

What steps he is taking to help ensure fairness in A-level exams in the 2020-21 academic year following the disruption of the covid-19 outbreak. (907352)

Exams are the fairest form of assessment. Ofqual has confirmed changes to A-level assessment content, and we have announced today a short delay in the exam timetable to free up teaching time to ensure that exams remain a fair assessment for all.

Significant concessions were under- standably made for A-level graduates this year because of covid-19, but what plans are being developed to ensure that next year’s A-level students are not disadvantaged in terms of university places?

The Government and universities understand what a difficult time young people have had. We are committed to working together to support the 2021 cohort: that is a key priority. We are also working with Ofqual and the exam boards to consider our approach to exams and assessments in 2021.

University Teaching and Student Services: Covid-19

What recent steps he has taken to help ensure that universities can deliver safe (a) teaching and (b) student services during the covid-19 outbreak. (907353)

What recent steps he has taken to help ensure that universities can deliver safe (a) teaching and (b) student services during the covid-19 outbreak. (907357)

We announced a package of measures in May to support the sector. We have also issued guidance on reopening, reflecting advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and we have worked with universities to ensure that they have outbreak plans that are shared with their local Public Health England teams. We will shortly provide additional guidance on winter planning and end-of-term preparations.

A constituent of mine who is also an associate lecturer at Nottingham Trent University wrote to me to say that a safe start to the new academic year would be a boost in a year that has been awful in so many ways. Why was it important to reopen universities? Does my hon. Friend agree with my constituent’s suggestion that specific testing and monitoring systems for universities might help to provide a safety net for very close-knit groups?

This Government have prioritised education. We simply cannot ask students to put their lives, or their academic journeys, on hold. To do so would mean removing opportunities, damaging social mobility and punishing young people. The education and welfare of students is at the forefront of all our decisions. That is why we have worked and continue to work with the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that students get access to tests if symptomatic so that the trace work can kick in immediately.

Last week I spoke to several constituents who are students at university. As per the Minister’s answer, I think it is fair to say that education and welfare, in many respects, leaves a lot to be desired. Could she and the Department help me to understand why several universities are not giving face-to-face teaching at all, even in an appropriate socially distanced way; are being extremely draconian in the way that certain students are being treated in terms of their social contact, which is a critical part of being at university; and, in some cases, are even charging £18 a day for food parcels? Could the Minister put appropriate pressure on universities—not all of them but those that are not performing—to sort this out?

Universities are offering blended learning unless they have moved to a higher covid tier, in conjunction with their local Public Health England team. But let me be clear: no university should seek to profit from students self-isolating, and reported charges of £18 a day for food parcels are quite simply outrageous. Students self-isolating in catered halls should receive free food, while other students should receive food that is either free—as many universities, including Sheffield Hallam and Edge Hill, are doing—or at a price that can be afforded within a student’s budget. I have spoken to many universities on this, and I am also writing to them to make the point.

Special Schools: Covid-19

We have published specific guidance to support the full opening of special schools. Recognising the additional challenges that they face, we have announced a package of support worth £1 billion, which includes a £650 million catch-up premium with additional weighting for specialist settings. We are also increasing the high needs funding by an additional £1.5 billion over this year and next.

I visited the excellent Fairways Primary School in my constituency this morning. I have also been contacted by two special schools, Estuary High School, which is having difficulty in getting tests for their students in their residential homes, and Kingsdown School, which is very worried about the new guidance issued on 28 August in terms of social distancing. Will my right hon. Friend look at those two points for me, please?

All schools are issued with sets of testing kit, and they have the ability to order more via the NHS portal. I would be very happy to look at the two points highlighted by my hon. Friend.

Schools: Covid-19 Costs

What steps the Government are taking to support schools that have incurred additional costs during the covid-19 outbreak. (907356)

What recent discussions he has had with school leaders on providing financial support for additional costs incurred by schools during the covid-19 outbreak. (907358)

Schools have continued to receive their core funding throughout the covid-19 outbreak and have been able to claim funds to meet certain exceptional costs in the period between March and July. We have so far paid out £58 million to schools, with further payments due later this autumn, and we are also providing £1 billion in catch-up funding. The Department and Ministers regularly meet school leaders on a range of covid-19 issues, including in relation to costs faced by schools.

I have been going back to school, and in doing so I have been speaking to a number of headteachers and principals who are increasingly alarmed about the costs they have incurred on PPE spend. What is the Minister doing to assure them that their budgets will not be stripped and that they will be able to recoup some of those losses?

Schools have continued to receive their core funding and should be using that to support their covid-19 expenditure. They have also been able to claim up to £75,000 to meet certain exceptional costs in that period between March and July. Brixham College and King Edward VI Community College have applied to the exceptional costs funds, and King Edward VI has received payments and Brixham will be receiving payments shortly.

Headteachers in my constituency tell me they are having to invest significantly in extra cleaning procedures and safety measures, as well as extra staff to cover periods of self-isolation. Further, many schools have also lost reliable income streams from hiring out spaces and fundraising events. Even before covid-19, school budgets were already stretched after years of cuts. With the pandemic set to continue, will the Minister commit today to extra funds for schools in the months to come?

This year is the first of a three-year funding settlement for schools. It is the largest increase in school funding for more than a decade, with £2.6 billion more funding for schools this year. In the hon. Lady’s constituency, pupil-led funding will rise by 2.2% this year.

Last week, the Schools Minister told me, as he has just alluded to, that schools have already submitted claims for £148 million for help with the extra covid-related costs they faced between March and July. As he just said, the Government have so far paid £58 million to schools for help during that period. Why is it that the Government accept that schools needed that additional help with covid costs earlier in the year, but are now ignoring pleas from headteachers for the resources they need for covid-related costs from September onwards? When will the Government recognise the significant extra costs of supply teachers required when staff self-isolate?

The hon. Lady is right that schools have been able to claim for exceptional covid-related costs for that period of March to July. Our priority now, as schools reopen to all pupils, is to target the available extra funding on catch-up, supporting schools to help all pupils to catch-up lost teaching time when schools were closed to most pupils. The £1 billion catch-up funding includes £650 million distributed on a per pupil basis to all schools, which means that a typical 1,000-pupil secondary school will receive £80,000 in extra funding this year. That is on top of the three-year funding settlement that I mentioned earlier—the biggest funding boost for schools in a decade.

SEND Education Funding

We are putting an extra £730 million into funding those with complex special educational needs and disabilities next year, which represents a 10% increase year-on-year in the high needs block, and that comes on top of the £780 million increase for this year, which means that the block will have grown by £1.5 billion, which is an increase of nearly a quarter. In Hertfordshire, funding for the high needs block will grow by 24% over that two-year period.

I welcome the increased Government funding in Hertfordshire, but the county council does not pass it through to families on the frontline. It is cutting funding to our Delivering Special Provision Locally groups. Our child and mental health services are overwhelmed. It is focusing on process, instead of our children with SEND. Will the Minister undertake a review of the real accessibility of SEND services in Hertfordshire and help me hold the council to account, so that we can fix SEND in Hertfordshire?

I thank my hon. Friend for his concern for the young people of Hertfordshire and their families. The Government are undertaking a major review of the special educational needs and disabilities system. It is a major priority for the Government and we are considering improvements to make sure that the SEND system is consistent, high quality and integrated across education, health and care and, importantly, that it works with parents, carers and families to make sure that they and their children are at the heart of the system.

Apprenticeships

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his support for apprenticeships. Apprenticeships will be more important than ever to support our economic recovery and help businesses to recruit the right people and develop the skills they need to recover and grow. To support employers to offer new apprenticeships, they can now claim £2,000 for every new apprentice they hire under the age of 25 and £1,500 for those aged over 25.

As a country, we rightly champion our wonderful universities. However, we are often too slow—particularly in schools—to promote apprenticeships. Will my hon. Friend assure me that she is doing everything in her power to ensure that apprenticeships are seen as a valid part of our education system?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that, as a former apprentice, this is very much at the forefront of my focus. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made it clear that further education is now more important than ever. That is part of the reason we are introducing once-in-a-generation reforms of the FE system through our skills White Paper, underpinning the progress we are already making with T-levels, which is backed by £500 million of funding per year, investing £1.5 billion in the transformation of the FE college estate, investing £2.5 billion through the national skills fund and introducing a new entitlement for adults without qualifications at level 3.

The Minister is right to say that apprenticeships are more important than ever, but for all the rhetoric, the way that the Government introduced the apprenticeship levy saw level 2 and level 3 apprenticeship numbers falling to their lowest level for a decade before coronavirus. Since then, we have seen generous incentives in the new kickstart scheme and much less generous incentives for apprenticeships. For all that the Minister says, why do this Government consistently introduce policies that have the effect of reducing the numbers doing level 2 and 3 apprenticeships?

The hon. Gentleman refers, I think, to the switch from frameworks to standards, which did have an impact on some of the numbers, but it was most important that we focused on the quality of apprenticeships. There were a number of apprenticeships early on, when we introduced the reform of the system, that were not of the desired quality. Young people put their trust in us, in the apprenticeship provider and in the employer, and it is most important that they get very high-quality apprenticeships; that is our focus.

University STEM Subjects

What steps his Department is taking to encourage more people to take up STEM subjects at university. (907363)

The Government encourage the study of science, technology, engineering and maths at all stages, which is vital for our economy and to drive productivity. In higher education, we are removing loan funding barriers for part-time STEM study at equivalent or lower levels and piloting graduate conversion courses for studying engineering, computer science and artificial intelligence.

In my constituency of Ynys Môn, I am working with Coleg Menai, M-SParc and the team at Bangor University to organise an innovation jobs fair. How is the Minister encouraging innovative companies such as Dyson to invest in the next generation?

Dyson’s UK site is based just outside my constituency, and I must declare that it has twice sponsored the Wiltshire Festival of Engineering, which I have organised. I am delighted that, as of last week, the pioneering Dyson Institute will be able to award its own degrees. A business taking this step is revolutionary, and I hope that many more will follow, to give students a much more diverse choice in higher education and ensure that we can deliver the skills that this country needs.

Religious Education: Maintained Schools

What steps he is taking to ensure maintained schools comply with requirements to teach religious education. (907364)

Maintained schools are required to teach religious education to all five to 18-year-olds. Any concerns that a maintained school is not meeting that duty should first go through the school’s complaints procedure, and if the complaint is not resolved, the issue can be escalated to the Department’s school complaints unit.

Religious education helps children to grow up with an understanding of and respect for people from different religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. It is also a statutory requirement, but the Religious Education Council tells me that 40% of all schools give no hours to RE in year 11. Does the Minister agree that the Department needs to better support schools to ensure that they are meeting their obligations to teach RE?

I agree with the hon. Member. Good quality religious education can help to develop children’s knowledge of the values and traditions of Britain and other countries, and foster understanding among different faiths and cultures. At a national level, the proportion of time secondary schools spend teaching RE has actually remained broadly stable. It was 3.2% of all teaching hours in 2010 and 3.3% in 2019.

Summer 2021 Year 11 Exams

What steps his Department has taken to plan and prepare for arrangements for year 11 exams at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. (907365)

We continue to believe that exams are the fairest form of assessment. Today we announced our plans for next summer’s year 11 exams to take place—the GCSEs—and we will work with Ofqual to engage the sector in planning for a range of scenarios of potential disruption to exams to ensure students get the results they deserve.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s written statement today and thank him for ending the uncertainty that was facing pupils, teachers and parents alike. Please can he reassure constituents such as one of mine, 15-year-old Charlotte, who wrote to me a couple of weeks ago and inspired this question today, that next year’s exams will take into account the disruption there has been to their learning, while allowing them to demonstrate their ability and what they have learned over the past few years, and please will he reassure her that further detail as to how that will be achieved will be coming very soon?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We do believe that the subject level changes to the content of assessment that was confirmed by Ofqual recently will reduce the pressure on students and free up teaching time. Combined with the timing changes to exams announced today, this does free up more teaching time to help address any unfairness. On top of that, as I have said before, there is the £1 billion catch-up fund, and we will have more to say later in the autumn about the issue of grading.

Disadvantaged Children: Educational Attainment

What steps he is taking to (a) improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged children and (b) close the educational attainment gap. (907367)

What steps he is taking to (a) improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged children and (b) close the educational attainment gap. (907373)

What steps he is taking to (a) improve the wellbeing of disadvantaged children and (b) close the educational attainment gap. (907379)

We are taking unprecedented action to help schools support wellbeing, including wellbeing for education return training, and world-leading trials on ways to promote mental health wellbeing. Disadvantaged pupils will receive high-quality tuition through the £350 million national tutoring programme, and we continue to provide schools with the £2.4 billion pupil premium.

We have seen the educational attainment gap between disadvantaged and advantaged children widen over the past decade, especially for children with special educational needs and disabilities. On top of this, earlier this year we heard from the Education Policy Institute that this attainment gap had widened during covid. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the impact of covid on levelling up for SEND children?

I think the hon. Lady and I have a shared passion to make sure that we close that gap, making sure that children, wherever they are born anywhere in the United Kingdom, have the very best opportunities in life. As the Prime Minister himself said, talent and ability are evenly spread in this country, but opportunity has not always been so. In an earlier answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson), I touched on the fact that there is a three times weighting for children with special educational needs in terms of the covid catch-up fund, making sure that extra support is channelled that way. I am sure that the hon. Lady has welcomed the announcements we made not just last year but this year which saw a total of £1.5 billion-worth of extra funding being channelled into high need funding in this country over this year and next year.

The programmes that exist to encourage and inspire bright pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds to access top universities have been severely impacted this year. The application deadline for Oxbridge medicine and dentistry is this Thursday. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that this year’s state school pupils, who have already been disadvantaged because of the reduced teaching time and mentoring, get a fair crack of the whip?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the news this year that Oxford and Cambridge welcome more state school pupils than they have ever done before. We want to continue to build on that. We want to ensure that every higher education establishment makes sure that all the opportunities that they can offer are available to every single child, whatever background they come from.

Tackling rising levels of food poverty would be one good way of improving the wellbeing of disadvantaged children and helping to raise educational attainment, so why will Ministers not extend the holiday hunger food vouchers programme to the half-term holiday and Christmas holidays?

As well as the incredibly successful holiday activity programme that we saw rolled out across many areas of England, we are looking at what more we can do in these areas, while recognising the important role that schools play in supporting pupils in their learning but also supporting their families.

University Education: Covid-19

What estimate he has made of the resources required by universities to support teaching and learning for students during the covid-19 outbreak. (907368)

We are working across Government and closely with the higher education sector to provide both practical and financial support through the covid-19 outbreak. This includes publishing reopening guidance to universities informed by SAGE advice, lifting caps on domestic medicine and dentistry causes for 2020-21, and providing both additional capital and teaching grant funding.

I thank the Minister for her response. She may be aware of concerns that the impact of the covid pandemic on the student experience will see higher non-completion rates, despite the best efforts of students and staff to continue teaching and learning throughout the outbreak. If non-completion rates were to increase, would the Government consider allocating additional financial support to universities to help cover the costs of non-completion?

We have a taskforce that meets weekly, and non-completion is something we have discussed. It is imperative that we support students to continue and complete their courses, and that we unlock their future potential and opportunities. This Government are determined to stand by them and ensure that happens.

Topical Questions

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 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.