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Topical Questions

Volume 697: debated on Monday 21 June 2021

I thank everyone in the education sector for their dedication throughout the pandemic. Last week, I had the pleasure of watching the Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill in the other place. The Bill will legislate for landmark reforms first set out in the skills for jobs White Paper to help to transform post-16 education and training, boost skills and get more people into work, helping us to build back better as we come out of the pandemic.

On Friday, I found out about the Diana Award anti-bullying strategy when I visited Gusford Primary School and I had the pleasure of meeting Harrison, a year 5 pupil, and Katie, a year 4 pupil. They are the two anti-bullying ambassadors for Gusford primary. Single-handedly, the two of them passionately seem to be on the way to stamping out bullying in the whole school and have actually required very little assistance from the teachers. The Diana Award, I understand, is currently awaiting funding and has put in an application to the Department for Education. Will my right hon. Friend confirm here today his commitment to supporting all the work they are doing to tackle and prevent bullying?

It sounds as if amazing work is going on at Gusford Primary School. That has been underpinned by the £3.5 million in funding available to charities and organisations such as the Diana Award. A number of organisations are currently bidding. I am afraid that I am not in a position to confirm which have been successful, but I understand that the Diana Award is one of those that has been bidding for the next tranche of funding.

Last week, the Early Years Alliance revealed secret Government documents that exposed that Ministers have been knowingly underfunding childcare, childminders and nurseries for years now, knowing full well that that would mean increased childcare costs for parents and lower-quality early education. Bearing in mind that in this year alone there has been a net loss of 2,500 childcare facilities in England, will the Minister apologise for covering this up? Will she explain to the House how she plans to rectify the very serious problem of underfunding in early education?

I do wish sometimes that my opposite number would stop scaremongering. We have put unprecedented investment in childcare over the past decade: more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years. There are always a number of reasons why providers come and go from the register, including mergers and acquisitions. The key thing is whether or not there are sufficient places for children. We monitor the market very closely, and we are continuing to see that there are not a significant number of parents who are unable to secure a childcare place this term or since early years sectors reopened in June.

Could the Secretary of State update the House on progress on changing A-levels to enable students to apply with known grades rather than predicted grades? (901561)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The consultation closed on 13 May and we are looking at the response very closely. We really want to bring post-qualification admissions forward as rapidly as possible. We would like to do so without legislation and in co-operation with the sector, but if we are not able to have that co-operation, we will drive this forward. All the evidence, from the Sutton Trust and from so many others, is clear that PQA helps children from the most disadvantaged families more than any others. That is why we will make it happen.

Given that the National Fire Chiefs Council, Zurich Municipal and many other stakeholders across the UK have repeatedly called for Ministers to bring England in line with Scotland and Wales, where sprinklers are compulsory, will the Secretary of State explain under what rationale the Department for Education has chosen to pursue a programme of installing sprinklers only in new schools over 11 metres tall? (901563)

We always look at the latest evidence and take the very best guidance. We are very proud of our building programme in schools, in new build and refurbishments, but we always look very closely. As the hon. Lady will be aware, there is some debate as to whether deluge systems or mist systems are best, but we are always guided by the best advice and the best evidence in our school building programme.

Our programme of promoting academies and enabling schools and colleges to become academies has been outstandingly successful and very popular. However, there is one section that has not been able to convert: Catholic sixth-form colleges. Will my right hon. Friend enable an amendment to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill to provide an opportunity for Catholic sixth-form colleges to academise with the legal protections that they need? (901565)

I am aware of how important this is. We look at all legislative opportunities to see how this can best be done, and we are committed at the earliest opportunity to making it happen. We want to see Catholic sixth-forms in a position to be able to academise, because we have seen the benefits that that can bring to so many schools. I will happily work with my hon. Friend and others to ensure that it happens at the earliest moment.

Will the Secretary of State ensure that, instead of experiencing disruption to a third academic year, universities are able to determine their own return of students in September this year? The University of York and York St John University have advanced plans in place and they do not want to see further delays, including staggered starts. Can they now also have the ability to allow international students to quarantine at their local university? (901564)

We have every expectation that by the autumn term we will be able to move forward beyond step 4, meaning that there will be no further restrictions on the provision of in-person teaching and learning. During the pandemic, many providers have developed a digital offering and, as autonomous institutions, they might choose to retain elements of that approach, as well as undertaking risk assessments, but our expectation is clear that universities should maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of provision. In terms of international students, we have been one of the world’s leaders in our visa concessions and flexibilities. I shall continue to work closely with the Home Office and the Department of Health to ensure that the best interests of students are always maintained, as well as public health.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Can the Secretary of State say what particular support is being made available for pupils with dyslexia to help them to catch up following the disruptions caused by the covid-19 pandemic? (901568)

The £3 billion education recovery interventions are largely targeted towards those children who need the most help. The catch-up and recovery premiums can be used flexibly by schools to support pupils with special educational needs, including those with dyslexia.

Develop is part of a small not-for-profit organisation in Bedford providing personalised teaching and training to local learners. Many of its 31 students have special educational needs and disabilities and cannot attend a mainstream college, so can the Secretary of State explain why this incredible centre’s Education and Skills Funding Agency funding will be stopped in July and how it is to support its devastated students and families? (901566)

We have, of course, increased our high needs budget by nearly a quarter over the past two years and put additional funding, through the recovery and catch-up programmes, towards special needs, supporting those children who need to be in special schools and not mainstream schools, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Member and look at the specific case that he has raised.

Kash Singh came to the United Kingdom aged seven, unable to speak English. He became a popular police inspector in Bradford, and on his retirement he set up OBON—One Britain One Nation—which aims to bring communities, particularly schoolchildren, together under the common cause of being proud of being British and taking pride in British values. OBON Day is on Friday. Will the Secretary of State thank Kash Singh for all his work in this regard, and will he encourage all schools to take part in OBON Day on Friday? (901569)

I would very much like to thank Kash Singh for the work he has done on this amazing project, and it is incredibly important that schools take part in it. We have already asked schools to participate, and I am happy to reiterate the endorsement of the project from the Dispatch Box and to encourage them to play their part in it.

How confident is the Secretary of State that children and young people in the care of local authorities are being protected from grooming gangs, and what discussions has he had with the Home Secretary about what more needs to be done to protect this group of young people? (901573)

I have regular discussions with the Home Secretary and across Government on this issue. It is vital that everything is done to address this. I know that this is something that is felt on both sides of the House. We will continue to put in all the resources and all the effort required to tackle this vital issue.

In the digital age, it is more important than ever that school and college courses reflect the skills needed by employers in the future. Will my hon. Friend outline the steps she and the Department are taking to bring forward new technical qualifications that will ensure that students from Aylesbury, especially at the university technical college and the further education college, are well equipped to meet the demands of the modern economy? (901570)

My hon. Friend is right: technical skills and education are vital to our modern economy, and never have we seen that more clearly than during the pandemic. The Conservative Government are encouraging more students into STEM education at all stages, from primary to higher education. We are proud to have rolled out multiple programmes to increase support for and uptake of STEM subjects, including through the National Centre for Computing Education. We are also investing £138 million to fund the roll-out of skills bootcamps across the country and free courses for jobs, through which adults can study for qualifications such as a diploma in networking and cyber-security or a certificate in systems infrastructure. I am delighted that, from September, Buckinghamshire College Group will offer our new employer-designed digital T-level.

Does the Secretary of State share my concern about the impact of the last year on teacher retention? What plans does he have to mitigate this and to tempt more new entrants to the teaching profession? Is he considering more grant funding for those who are planning to enter the profession? Will he take some positive steps? (901574)

We continue to support recruitment to the teaching profession with an extensive bursary scheme to incentivise people to take up teaching, especially in areas with the greatest shortage. We remain committed to our £30,000 starting salary for teachers, which we recognise is an incredibly compelling offer for many people. Mr Speaker, you will be pleased to hear that last year a record number of people chose to enter the teaching profession, and we expect similar results this year.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the recently announced multimillion-pound rebuild of Lytham St Annes High School, but looking to the present, what steps is the Department taking to help school leavers this summer, as they transition into work or higher education following severe disruption to their final two academic years? (901571)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who campaigned hard to get the funding to deliver the rebuilding of Lytham St Annes High School for his constituents. We will continue to work with all schools throughout the remainder of this academic year to ensure that there is as much support as possible for students, whether through the recovery premium that schools have been receiving or money made available for summer schools, so that schools can put on additional activities. The further education sector has also been supported to support its pupils, so they can get on and get the best opportunities.

The Association of Colleges has accused the UK Government of creating an “education versus work” divide by requiring universal credit claimants to prioritise looking for work over training. How exactly do the Government expect disadvantaged universal credit claimants to train and improve their skills if their financial support is linked to prioritising work over training opportunities? (901575)

I will update the hon. Gentleman. We have been working with the Department for Work and Pensions to extend to 12 weeks the time that those who are claiming universal credit can undertake college courses. Anyone who wants to attend one of the boot camps we are rolling out across the country can complete the programme, with up to 16 weeks in total.

The Department of Health and Social Care is closing the asymptomatic testing and lateral flow testing facilities at the University of Hull on 31 July, despite the fact that the university remains open during the summer for staff, postgraduates, international students and students who cannot return home, despite the fact that not all students have been double vaccinated, and despite the fact that the number of cases is rising. Will the Minister for Universities intervene urgently and speak to her colleagues at the DHSC to keep testing open at the University of Hull?

As the hon. Member will know, we have worked very closely with the Department of Health and Social Care throughout the pandemic, and the testing offer for students continues to be as accessible as possible. In addition, students can utilise the universal testing offer. I will continue to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care in regard to summer provision as well as autumn provision, and I am happy to meet her to discuss this further.

Ministers failed to secure over 90% of the funding called for by Kevan Collins for the catch-up fund, and we have just discovered that 100,000 vulnerable students and disadvantaged students will miss out on the pupil premium because Ministers have failed to secure the funding. Over the weekend, when the Chancellor was asked, he gave the reason why: because he cannot fund every cause that

“comes knocking on my door.”

Do students in this country not deserve a set of Ministers with the skill and determination to get through the front door of the Treasury and come out with the investment that our schools, students and teachers need?

We have announced a £1.4 billion education recovery package, which is the third announced in the last 12 months, coming on top of £1 billion announced in June 2020 and £700 million announced in February last year. That £1.4 billion will provide an extra £1 billion for tutoring, which will provide up to 100 million hours of tutoring. That is 6 million 15-hour courses for five to 16-year-olds and 2 million 15-hour courses for 16 to 19-year-olds. This is a huge package. We are now reviewing the time aspect of the recommendations made by Sir Kevan, and that will report into the spending review later this year.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A few moments ago, the Secretary of State—I am sure inadvertently—in answer to me said that he and the Prime Minister had a plan to roll out tutoring to 6 million children across the country. That is an error that was also made last week by the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions. As I am sure the Secretary of State will wish to make clear to the House, the correct figure is 6 million tutoring sessions. That is slightly different.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. To be absolutely clear, we aim to roll out tutoring for 6 million pupils across the country.

Right. That has gone on the record.

I now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.