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Topical Questions

Volume 687: debated on Monday 18 January 2021

I very much wish to start by thanking all those who work in our schools, colleges, early years settings and universities for the work they have been doing over the past few weeks to ensure that youngsters and people of all ages who are using our education establishment get the very best education. In the light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have confirmed that GCSE, A-level and AS-level exams will not be going ahead as planned this summer. This year’s grades will be awarded based on the judgment of teachers, not algorithms. I am pleased to confirm that Ofqual, with the Department, has launched a two-week consultation to seek views on how to fairly award all pupils, including private candidates and students taking vocational qualifications, the grades they truly deserve.

May I, too, start by thanking all teachers and educational staff in Stourbridge, who continue to do a vital job in the most difficult of circumstances? Although we are asking the vast majority of schools to move to remote provision, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only right that we, once again, keep schools open for vulnerable children and those whose parents are working on the frontline of our response to this pandemic?

I very much join my hon. Friend and neighbour in thanking all those teachers and support staff who have been doing a brilliant job in Stourbridge in keeping schools open for children of critical workers and for vulnerable children. It is important to emphasise the need to encourage children, especially those in most vulnerable categories, to come into school and continue to have that support and protection that school offers them, and the importance of doing so—it gives them so much support, in sometimes difficult circumstances. I thank all teaching staff for ensuring that schools remain open for children of critical workers.

The utterly inadequate school food parcels we saw last week were an absolute scandal, one that was, however, entirely in line with the Government’s own guidance. So why has it taken the Secretary of State until the third week of term to initiate a voucher system? Can he tell the House how many parents received vouchers today?

As the hon. Lady would know if she had taken the time to read our guidance, those food parcels did not meet the expectations or the guidance that we set out. They are not acceptable and we have made that clear. We are very keen to ensure that schools have the choice and freedom to choose what is best for children in their school. That is why we have given schools—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady stopped chuntering from a sedentary position she would have the opportunity to hear my answer. That is why we have given schools the opportunity to choose food parcels, vouchers that are locally procured or the national voucher scheme. More than 15,000 of those vouchers have already been dispatched today.

Ah, so we got the answer in the end. The truth is that the Secretary of State was late in planning the voucher scheme, late in getting laptops to students, late in consulting on replacing exams, and late in announcing that students will not return to school in January. After delay after delay, has he finally realised what parents, pupils and staff have known for months, which is that he is just not up to the job?

Time and again, we have recognised where there are real challenges in dealing with the global pandemic. That is why we have taken the action that we have. That is why we are distributing 1.3 million laptops right across the country.

That is why we have put the national voucher scheme in place. That is why we are supporting families who are often the most vulnerable and why we will continue supporting families who are the most vulnerable.

I wish to start by putting on the record my thank you to all those early years and nursery workers in Radcliffe, Whitefield and Prestwich in my constituency. During the pandemic, private nurseries have seen their cleaning costs and the costs of PPE increase fourfold, but, as they are not state run, they get no assistance with those increased costs. Will the Minister meet me to discuss a funding solution that will address this immediate concern while also working towards a meaningful review of early years funding? (910897)

We have provided unprecedented support to the early years sector throughout the pandemic, through the block-buying childcare places, furlough and other schemes. We are monitoring the current situation really closely and will continue to review it if further measures are needed. For example, where education and childcare settings have an unmet need for PPE, they can access it via their local authority or local resilience forums. We will continue to keep supporting our early years sector.

As Ministers know, both the children’s commissioner and I are keen to get their support for a ban on placing looked-after children in unregulated accommodation, but I understand that the Department wants to do this only for under-16s, which would currently affect 90 or so children. There are many, many more 16 to 18-year-olds in unsafe accommodation who are still legally children and who are still meant to be in our care. Can the Minister explain the justification for treating them differently and, in doing so, potentially putting them at risk of harm? (910895)

Independent and semi-independent provision can be the right choice for older children who are ready for this where it is high quality and meets their needs. It can enable them to develop their independence as they transition into adult life. However, we are absolutely clear that we need to do more to ensure that the quality of this provision is consistently good, and that this type of provision is simply not appropriate for children under the age of 16 who should be placed in children’s homes or foster care. We have consulted on introducing national quality standards and we will publish the Government’s response to the consultation in due course.

I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend has received a lot of ill-informed and abusive emails and posts on social media about the school lunches. I am pleased that the Department has established a hotline for complaints about the lunch parcels. I am absolutely certain that most schools are providing good quality parcels for children. Please will she confirm how many complaints about food parcels the newly established hotline has received? (910899)

DFE helplines have been giving support to schools and others on a wide range of matters. On Wednesday morning, after seeing some of the photos of unacceptable parcels, we announced that parents could call the DFE if they had a problem with a lunch parcel, but that they should try to resolve it with the school first. There are around 1.4 million children on free school meals. By the end of last week, we had received a total of seven calls in relation to unacceptable lunch parcels. Each has been fully investigated. We expect high-quality lunch parcels for our children.

Ninety primary school headteachers from across Bradford have written to the Secretary of State to express their disappointment in his ability to support teachers and pupils. School-age children in my constituency have some of the lowest social mobility rates in the country. The Government say that they have a plan to ensure that children catch up on the learning that they have lost, but there are currently only enough places on the national tutoring programme for one in every five disadvantaged pupils in England. Will the Minister increase this as a matter of urgency, and commit to publishing a fully funded plan to ensure that the most disadvantaged children do not fall even further behind? (910896)

Ensuring that no child suffers a loss to their education or damage to their long-term prospects as a consequence of the pandemic is a key priority of education policy. That is why we have secured £1 billion of catch-up funding from the Treasury; £350 million of that is for the national tutoring programme, and £650 million is being distributed to all schools across the country on the basis of £80 per pupil and £240 per pupil in special school settings. That money can be used to target the children who most need to catch up.

A headteacher in my constituency has been in touch to express real concern about Ofsted assessing schools when there are no agreed standards or established precedents that relate to education in lockdown, so may I urge the Schools Minister to engage closely with headteachers and Ofsted to ensure that any assessment process is fair to schools as they operate now, and reflects the hugely difficult circumstances to which they have been subjected? (910903)

Formal Ofsted inspections have been suspended until the summer term. What is happening is that Ofsted is engaged in monitoring visits for schools rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”, and having discussions about the quality of the curriculum and the challenges that schools are facing with remote education. We have set out clear expectations for what we expect schools to do with regard to remote education, including the fact that at key stage 1 there should be three hours of remote education, at key stage 2 four hours, and at key stages 3 and 4 five hours a day.

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Erasmus, I have a vested interest in ensuring that British students across the country have access to the best international education programme possible, so two weeks ago I wrote a letter, which was signed by colleagues across the House, about the Turing scheme that is replacing Erasmus. I have yet to receive a response from Ministers. Although we welcome the Turing programme, it could be greatly improved to become a notable and truly beneficial exchange programme, so will the Secretary of State commit today to arranging a meeting with my colleagues and I to discuss this further? (910898)

We are very much looking forward to the APPG being rechristened the Turing APPG, hopefully in the not-too-distant future. I can confirm that the Minister for Universities, my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group to see what more can be done to expand these truly great opportunities for all young people right across the United Kingdom to see the world and to learn from the experience of studying in so many institutions right across the globe.

Stockton South has some of the best teachers in the country, and they are working hard to ensure that youngsters who might lack the support and resources that they need at home are not left behind as a result of school closures. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that when schools reopen, deprived youngsters can catch up and still reach their full potential? (910905)

I echo my hon. Friend’s thanks to all teachers in Stockton South, and not only for the amazing work they did last term, but for what they are continuing to do. He is absolutely right to highlight children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. That is why our covid catch-up fund is so incredibly important in helping them to catch up, and why our roll-out of 1.3 million laptops right across the country is so important in helping to support schools. The best thing that we can do is see all schools return at the earliest possible date, with children benefiting from being back in the classroom and learning directly from their teachers.

A really concerning new report from the National Union of Students has found that 69% of student renters are worried about not being able to meet their rental payments. With rent arrears building up, along with tuition fee debt in England, what additional support can be provided, and why not give more students access to universal credit and, therefore, the housing support that they really need? (910900)

We will always look at how best we can support students. We have announced an additional £20 million of hardship funding for students, to be administered through universities in England, and we will continue to keep that under review.

Many students have suffered as a result of inadequate teaching and pastoral care at their universities, in addition to unfair costs for accommodation that they are not even allowed to stay in. What action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Government are a voice for students, that they stand up for students and that they allow them to be compensated in some way by their universities when those universities fail them and let them down? (910907)

There can be no excuses when universities are not offering the type of remote teaching and educational support that is expected. That is why it is so critical that, where that remote teaching and support is not happening, students’ rights are upheld. We saw at the tail end of last year that students’ rights were upheld and universities had to redress that. That is the right approach. We recognise how important it is to support students, which is why we will continue to look at how best we can support them through programmes such as the hardship fund.

Ministers will have heard the concern across the House about the safety of special needs schools and nurseries. To reassure us, can they tell us what meetings they have had over the past two weeks with Public Health England about the evidence of transmission associated with special educational needs pupils, their parents and staff at those schools, and the pupils, parents and staff in nursery settings? What does that evidence tell us about transmission over the last two weeks? (910901)

We are in continual contact with Public Health England, through the Department, and we also meet early years representatives. I have been touring special schools virtually throughout. Our early years are vital years of education for the youngest, which they cannot get back, our special schools provide vital support for young people with disabilities, and alternative provision settings are vital for our most vulnerable. All those settings are usually smaller than other settings, which is why they have less of an impact on community transmission —it should be remembered that we closed schools to reduce community transmission—and why PHE continues to advise us that closing them is not needed to bring down the R number.

I thank all those teachers who are going over and beyond to ensure that their pupils can access education, virtual or otherwise. What measures is the Department taking to ensure that children can continue to go through the statementing process for educational needs while our schools are closed due to covid restrictions, and after they open? (910902)

We have kept our schools open to those with the most severe special needs and disabilities and those with an education, health and care plan. We continue to back up and support local authorities to improve their special educational needs and disabilities provision, to make sure that those young people who need an EHC plan can get one as soon as possible. We are working with councils all across the country.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary for bringing forward the independent review of children’s social care. I am hugely grateful that this important manifesto commitment did not find itself on the back burner given all the other challenges we face. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what he expects the review to achieve for those children in care or on the fringes of care? (910911)

This is something everyone in this House feels incredibly passionately about. I know through seeing at first hand, coming from a family with parents who fostered for many years, how important it is to get high-quality children’s social care right in this country. I want a real revolution to come out of this report, and I am incredibly pleased that Josh MacAlister has taken on this role to deliver the changes that I think Members on both sides of the House want. I have said quite clearly that I do not want him to hold back in tackling difficult issues. I want to see change, improvement and children’s lives transformed. By working on a cross-party basis, I believe that that is what we can deliver.

Unfortunately, that brings us to the end of the time for questions, due to a connection failure. I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.