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Topical Questions

Volume 700: debated on Monday 6 September 2021

I would like to update the House on what my Department is doing to support the successful return to education. We remain committed to reducing disruption to children and young people’s education, allowing schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face learning. Schools are maintaining proportionate protective measures such as testing, ventilation and extra hygiene to keep pupils and staff safe. On-site testing will be offered as students return, followed by regular at-home testing. Students aged 16 and 17, as well as younger children aged 12 to 15 in eligible groups, are encouraged to take up the offer of the vaccine.

Russell Scott Primary School in Denton had an extensive £2.7 million refurbishment a few years back. Unfortunately, the work was done by Carillion just before it went bump. Some £670,000 has been spent patching the structural problems caused by its works, but another £5 million is needed, and even then, Tameside Council is not convinced that the building will be fixed. This is serious, so may I ask the Secretary of State for an urgent meeting to look at how we can help Russell Scott give the children there the very best education in the very best buildings?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Russell Scott Primary School. I know that my noble Friend Baroness Berridge would be very happy to meet him and other representatives to discuss in detail some of the challenges that the school is facing.

I just remind everybody that we need brief and punchy questions. I call Jason McCartney to set a great example.

T3. Sixth-form education will play a pivotal role in building back better after covid. Will the Secretary of State join me, please, in supporting an increase in base rate funding for sixth-form students to at least £4,760 in the forthcoming spending review? Will he also please agree to meet members of the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education, which I co-chair? (903307)

I would be absolutely delighted to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues on the all-party parliamentary group on sixth-form education. He will no doubt be aware that we have already been putting extra resources into 16-to-19 education. An additional £400 million was awarded in 2019. We recognise that it is important to invest in the quality of estate, which is why we are putting £1.5 billion into upgrading that estate.

Earlier this year, in June, I stood at this Dispatch Box and confronted the Minister about the number of nurseries and childcare providers that were closing because of the Government’s inability to fund the early years sector properly. The Minister accused me of scaremongering. Since June, there has been a further loss of 500 childcare providers in the sector, which brings the net loss for this year alone to nearly 3,000. Will the Minister make up for dismissing the concerns of parents, children and carers by providing targeted funding for the early years sector from this Government?

The Ofsted data from March shows a 4% dip in the number of childcare providers since 31 August, which is a fall largely driven by childminders and carers, not nursery settings. Sufficiency is the key measure and we have not had any reports of sufficiency issues in early years settings since they reopened in June 2020. We put £3.5 billion into our early years entitlements because we care about childcare.

The Turing scheme has exceeded expectations, with 40,000 placements across 150 locations. Ministers met Scottish journalists and education providers when applications opened. A total of 28 Scottish institutions have successfully applied for over £7.8 million in funding.

The Council for At-Risk Academics has called on the UK Government to set up a fellowship scheme for scholars at risk in Afghanistan similar to the PAUSE scheme in France. Will the Secretary of State consider implementing such a scheme?

I think we all recognise the amazing work that academics and teachers did in Afghanistan, doing so much to support education there. We would certainly look very closely at all options to support people who are most vulnerable as a result of the Taliban regime.

T7. We now know from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation that the chance of 12 to 15-year-olds ending up in intensive care with covid is two in a million. Given that statistic, is it still proportionate that millions of children are losing school days this week to be tested for covid? (903311)

My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that we will be reviewing the need for children to be doing home testing at the end of September. If there is not a requirement to do that, we will be looking at removing it. It is important that we continue to keep these matters under review. That is why we will be doing so at the end of this month.

T2. Disabled children and those with high needs have suffered disproportionately as a result of missed education and a lack of assessment. There is a huge shortage of educational psychologists, which is delaying the drawing up of education, health and care plans. Can the Minister tell me what steps she is taking to help those children to get the services they need and to catch up? (903306)

We have increased the high needs budget by a record £2.3 billion, which is over a third over the past three years. We are also making good progress with the special educational needs and disability review, which has inevitably been a bit frustrated by the pandemic and changed the issues we are looking at, but we absolutely want all pupils to have access to the education they deserve. That is why our recovery funding has also been extra tilted towards those in specialist settings.

T9. As my right hon. Friend knows, maths makes an invaluable contribution to our economy and our way of being, whether that is in computing, encryption, artificial intelligence or even the development of the covid vaccine. The London Mathematical Society has been raising awareness of maths through its “Protect Pure Maths” campaign. Will he tell the House what he is doing to encourage more people to study maths at university and to support the Government’s science, technology, engineering and maths agenda? (903313)

We have seen a real revolution in maths over the last 10 years, with maths being the most popular subject to take at A-level. This has been supported not just by changes in the curriculum, in terms of how people are learning maths, but by the introduction of new specialist maths schools that are making sure that young people have the opportunity to excel in mathematics, which is so vital.

T4. At the University of St Andrews in my constituency, a number of students are unable to start their studies due to difficulties getting visas and visa decisions. Is the Minister for Universities aware of these delays with international students and what conversations are being had with the Home Office accordingly? (903308)

I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member. I work very closely with my colleagues in the Home Office to assist them and make this as smooth as possible, as international students are vital to this country, not just economically, but culturally and for our society.

T10.   Thank you, Mr Speaker—I was going to wear my headset especially for you, but I could not find anywhere to plug it in. My right hon. Friend recently had a meeting to discuss defibrillators in schools, but will he give us an update on where that will happen and how we can make sure that schools are safe for everyone? (903314)

It was incredibly moving to speak to Mark King and listen to his tragic experience of losing his son, Oliver—he was joined by Jamie Carragher as well. It really does focus us on the need to do as much as possible to encourage schools to have defibrillators. That is why we will look at changing the regulations, which are underpinned by secondary legislation, to ensure that all schools have defibrillators in the future and hopefully prevent such a tragedy visiting more families.

T5. Safeguarding young people in statutory settings such as schools must always be a priority, yet the same children in community settings are being exposed to huge risks, including consuming large volumes of alcohol, and being exposed to drug dealing and sexual exploitation. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the lack of youth provision for our young people and the importance of putting these services in place, like on the Little Knavesmire in York? (903309)

I absolutely agree that we need to have more for our young people to do, which is why it has been so brilliant over the summer to see our amazing holiday activities and food programme, which has given young people access to opportunities that they never had before and helped to give them confidence, build their wellbeing and close the attainment gap, as well as providing food. I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member to find out more about what is happening in her constituency.

It was great to visit the excellent Ilfracombe Church of England Junior School’s holiday activities and food programme, but this was one of only a handful of these programmes in my rural constituency. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that more students can access them in the future?

I thank all those hon. Members who visited their HAF programmes this summer. They had so much fun and I am delighted that participation was so high. It is the first time that we have ever had this type of project for our children. Local authorities are already setting out their plans for this Christmas. Let us make sure that we get to even more kids.

T8. Over the past decade, there has been a 47% decrease in drama participation and a 36% drop in music participation in schools. A broad curriculum is vital to young people’s life chances, yet access often depends on parents’ ability to pay for these activities. I heard what the Minister had to say about the music curriculum but unless the Government commit to providing the resources to all schools to provide creative arts education, young people will be let down. What will the Minister do about it? Will he provide that funding? (903312)

We are committed to arts education. The proportion of those who are taking at least one GCSE in an arts subject has remained broadly stable over the past 10 years. We are also committed to very significant funding for arts and music projects, with £620 million over the past three years, including £79 million for the 119 music education hubs and £148 million for the music and dance scheme. We are very committed to the arts and to drama in our schools.[Official Report, 7 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 2MC.]

Will the Secretary of State kindly speak to the Secretary of State for the Home Department about getting visas for the 12 at-risk Afghan scholars—some still in hiding, some in Pakistan—who have been awarded sponsored places by high-quality British universities and who need the visas to take them up?

I will most certainly undertake to do that. We have seen the education community in the United Kingdom coming together to support those who want to resettle from Afghanistan to this country; we also want to look at the opportunities for those brilliant, amazing people from Afghanistan and the part that they can play in our education system in the UK.