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Topical Questions

Volume 705: debated on Monday 6 December 2021

The whole nation is appalled by the story of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. No child should ever be subject to a campaign of such appalling cruelty, and I will make a statement to the House later today on the steps we are taking to learn the lessons of this tragedy and ensure that we can prevent other children from experiencing such horrific abuse.

The Derby High School in my constituency offers an outstanding educational provision, but has ambitions to ensure that all its pupils have the skills, training and knowledge needed to access high-quality jobs at the earliest opportunity. In line with that ambition, the school is seeking funding to develop a technology centre. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and the school’s inspirational head, Ms Hubert, to discuss how that transformative vision can be achieved?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the great work of our schools. I would be happy to meet him and the headteacher of the high school, Ms Hubert, to discuss plans for how we can build on the success of pupils in Bury.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for his warm welcome, and welcome his intention to make a statement later today on the tragic death of Arthur.

The Secretary of State will be aware that in the north-west and the west midlands, just 40% of children aged 12 to 15 have been vaccinated. Will he use the Christmas holidays to vaccinate our children, support schools in planning for next term and get ahead of the virus?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s kind words. We will do everything to make sure that we continue to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds. Of course, those who had their vaccine early on will be due to have their second jab by mid-December—the middle of this month—now that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has recommended that they have second jabs. We will continue to deliver those jabs using not only school settings but vaccination centres to make sure that we really drive the uptake of vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds.

It is now more than six months since the education recovery chief Sir Kevan Collins resigned in protest at the Government’s abject failure. Their total failure to support our children risks letting down a generation. Why will the Secretary of State not bring forward proper proposals, like Labour’s clear, costed and achievable plans, which match the scale of the challenge that our children face?

Instead of focusing on an arms race of increasing inputs of billions of pounds, we are focusing on outcomes. Those students with least time left in education—the 16 to 19-year-olds—are getting an extra hour of education a week. There was £800 million for that in the Budget and an additional £1 billion for secondary and primary school pupils, especially those who are most disadvantaged. Of course, we have heard today about the national tutoring programme, which is going at pace and will deliver real differences in levelling up to those who most need it. I hope that in future the hon. Lady will continue to look at evidence rather than worry about inputs.

T2. I was grateful to the Minister for Further and Higher Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) for meeting me last week to discuss the lack of post-16 educational opportunities in the Bolsover constituency. Does she agree that in order for the next generation of young people in Bolsover truly to reach their potential, it is vital that they can access the full suite of educational choices locally? (904587)

I absolutely agree that it is important for people of all ages to have access to higher education and training wherever they live. Learners in Bolsover are served by three general further education providers in the surrounding area, but I shall work with my hon. Friend on this issue and urge him and the Derbyshire local authority to use the published process to bring it to the attention of the Education and Skills Funding Agency for consideration. In addition, secondary schools rated good or outstanding by Ofsted can put forward proposals for the addition of sixth-form provision.

I associate myself and the rest of us on the SNP Benches with the Secretary of State’s remarks about little Arthur.

Reports that the student loan repayment threshold will be lowered are most concerning for those who are already experiencing graduate debt. Will the Minister detail the discussions she has had with Treasury colleagues? Will she confirm whether any proposed threshold change would be applied retrospectively?

As the hon. Member knows well, we will not comment on speculation. We will shortly respond in full to the Augar review, and the best interests of students, taxpayers and universities will be at the heart of that report.

T3. Even before the pandemic hit we knew that getting more young people into science, technology, engineering and maths subjects was vital. Now that we seek to build back better, what are my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench doing to get more young people, and especially more young women, throughout the United Kingdom into STEM subjects? (904588)

Ensuring that everyone, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to pursue STEM subjects is a key priority of this Government. We fund multiple programmes to boost STEM uptake, particularly among girls—that includes providing £84 million to improve computing teaching and participation at GCSE and A-level and £76 million for maths teaching for mastery—and we have more than 20,000 STEM ambassadors, of whom 40% are women.

T5. The post-Brexit Nobel laureate scheme was touted as a way to get the best and brightest scientists into the UK but has failed to attract a single application. Will the Secretary of State explain the reason for this complete failure? Could it be the Home Secretary’s hostile environment? (904590)

The prize route is just one option under our global-talent route, through which we have received thousands of applications since it was launched in 2020. As the hon. Member knows, the prize route has a high bar: only those who are at the pinnacle of their career and who have already received and accepted prestigious prizes in their field qualify. The list of awards was drawn up in consultation with the relevant global talent-endorsing bodies and we continue to keep it under review.

T4.   The Government are taking necessary and precautionary steps to deal with the omicron variant, but can my hon. Friend reassure the House that, whatever happens with this virus, he will not shut primary schools and nurseries? It is impossible for children this young to learn properly online and the damage that it does to their education and wellbeing is immense. (904589)

In-person education remains our absolute priority. Our guidance is clear that settings should do everything possible to keep children in face-to-face education safely. We are working across the sector to ensure that face-to-face education and childcare are prioritised and I will do everything in my power to keep schools and nurseries open. I was particularly pleased to see some of the excellent work that is going on with academic mentors at Dunton Green Primary School in my hon. Friend’s constituency recently.

On Friday, I met with a fantastic group of students from Gosforth East Middle School who have been inspired by COP26 to make changes in their own school. They want to cut emissions, so they surveyed their teachers to find out why more of them do not have electric cars. Hearing that the main barrier is cost and that there is no access to a salary sacrifice scheme, the students want to know what the Government are going to do, given that it would boost manufacturing, support them with the cost-of-living crisis and significantly cut emissions in all our towns and cities.

As a former Minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I can tell the hon. Lady that it is about ensuring that we deliver affordable transport that is green: not only cars but other forms of transport.

T6. Some schools have not received an inspection for more than a decade, and material changes during that time, such as a new senior leadership team, could have had a significant impact on the quality of education being provided. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that parents have access to the most up-to-date picture of their children’s education? (904591)

My hon. Friend is right that parents should have up-to-date assessments of the quality of education at their child’s school, which is why, from the start of this term, Ofsted resumed routine inspections of the full range of schools, with the aim of each school having at least one inspection by summer 2025.

Covid-related pupil absences have risen by about 47% over the past fortnight and many schools are struggling with staff absences, too. Given that we know that good ventilation is key in schools, can the Minister give us an update on the Bradford pilot that was started earlier this year? What is going on with regard to air purifiers, when will that trial report and will he implement its findings?

The hon. Lady is right about the importance of this issue. As we heard in the Secretary of State’s update, CO2 monitors are being rolled out successfully across the school estate. The Bradford pilot is owned by the NHS, so, of course, we will work closely with it on interpreting, and implementing action on, its findings.

T7. Last month, I hosted a mental health forum in my constituency, which was attended by local headteachers, including Jon Skurr of Carlton Keighley and Carly Purnell of Ilkley Grammar School. They made it clear to me that, in addition to providing great education, they must also provide counselling and pastoral care. Can my hon. Friend outline the Government’s plans to further support mental health provision in schools? (904592)

I am pleased to join my hon. Friend in thanking those providing these important services in his constituency. The Government are providing additional support through establishing mental health support teams in 35% of schools and colleges in England by 2023 and enabling all schools and colleges to train senior mental health leads by 2025.

The biggest issues that children with special educational needs face in York is not only the coming together of the multi-disciplinary team in a timely way, but inadequacy. When the Minister is looking at his SEN review, will he ensure that there is a multi-agency workforce plan in place to meet the needs of all children with additional needs?

The hon. Lady is right in this regard. The SEN review will, of course, be looking at that and it will report in the first quarter of next year. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the issue further.

T8. My recent visit to Ysgol y Grango and Ysgol Rhiwabon in Clwyd South brought home to me the huge interest there is among students in Parliament and its workings. Given covid restrictions, will my right hon. Friend and the Ministers work with the House authorities to look at new, virtual and interactive ways to bring Parliament to schools and colleges across Wales and the UK? (904593)

Mr Speaker, I am sure that you will agree that democracy and the role of Parliament are central to citizenship education, which prepares pupils to take an active role in society. Parliament’s excellent free education service offers a range of resources, including the resumption of school visits to Parliament, outreach visits to schools and online workshops.

Three months ago, I raised the appalling conditions at Russell Scott Primary School in Denton, which the Daily Mirror dubbed

“Britain’s worst built school where pupils paddle in sewage and get sick from toxic fumes”,

after a botched £5 million refurbishment by Carillion. What progress have Department for Education officials made with Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council to get the school urgently rebuilt?

I remember well the hon. Gentleman’s Westminster Hall debate on this issue. We continue to work with Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council. In that debate, he put in a bid for the next round of the priority school building programme, and, as I mentioned earlier, we are consulting on our approach to that.

T9. Across the country, many local directors of public health are going far beyond the Department’s covid guidance in their recommendations to schools, and the recent reintroduction of masks in communal spaces has turbo-charged this trend. Headteachers, who are not public health professionals, are being put in an impossible position. We are now seeing the cancellation of important events, the isolation of—and denial of education to— healthy children, forced mask wearing in lessons, punitive measures for forgetting to follow arbitrary rules, and children subjected to dangerously cold classrooms. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an unethical and frankly inhumane way to treat our children? What can he do to ensure that schools do not go beyond the Government’s guidance? (904594)

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate for ensuring that any mitigation is proportionate. The most important thing is that we prioritise face-to-face education. Keeping children in school is my absolute priority, and I have said from the Dispatch Box today that I will do everything in my power to maintain that situation. Of course, directors of public health can advise temporary additional measures, but they should always be proportionate. As long as schools continue to be open, they should be holding nativities, and delivering every other one of their important functions.

Earlier I made the case to the Minister for School Standards, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), for a new school at Lydiate Primary School. His answer was to talk about maintenance, but that is just a make-do-and-mend approach that really is not going to cut it for the children of Lydiate Primary School; it is very short-sighted and would be poor value for money. Since 2010, the school capital programme has been cut from £9.1 billion to £4.3 billion. If the Government are serious about levelling up, will they put the money back in and rebuild schools such as Lydiate Primary School?

The Prime Minister announced the new school rebuilding programme in June 2020. We have confirmed the first 100 schools as part of a commitment to 500 projects over the next decade, including Deyes High School in Sefton. We are investing a total of £5.6 billion of capital funding to support the education sector in 2021-22.

Will the Secretary of State welcome tomorrow’s ten-minute rule Bill, which proposes universal screening for dyslexia in primary schools, and stronger support for teaching and assessment? I know that the Secretary of State, with his extraordinary life story, shares my passion for this agenda, so will he put his full weight behind it?

My right hon. Friend is a passionate champion and advocate for the technology behind screening for dyslexia. I will certainly take a close look at his Bill tomorrow.

After the sad news that he has announced— that he is stepping down at the next election—I call Barry Sheerman.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Is the Secretary of State aware that in the 10 years that I chaired the Select Committee on Education, one point came through really strongly—that every bit of money that we put into early years is the best investment that we can possibly make? When are we going to take that seriously and have good, accessible and cheap pre-school care, and the best Sure Start and children’s centres, like those we created under Tony Blair?

I know that I can call the hon. Gentleman my friend because he is a passionate champion of education and of early years, and has been for a long time. In fact, he showed me around his think-tank, with which he did such tremendous work. He will be pleased to hear that we are delivering family hubs, which are not just about investing in bricks and mortar, but are evidence based when it comes to what can be done in the early years for families that need the most help.

Storm Arwen has killed a load of the electricity supplies not only to homes across my constituency but to schools. Will the Minister ask the Department to feed into the Ofgem review to ensure that if there are power issues in future, schools such as the small schools in Weardale or schools like St Bede’s in Lanchester are not cut off and children are not cut off from education as they have been over the past two years because of covid?

I would certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend further to discuss this while we also discuss the situation at Witton-le-Wear.

It is a fact that hungry children cannot learn. The Scottish Government have implemented the Scottish child payment of £10 a week, which has already been described by charities as a game changer in supporting families across Scotland. It is getting doubled to £20 per week in April. Is it not time the UK Government did more to support vulnerable families and looked at reinstating the £20 a week universal credit uplift?

I am very proud of the work we do on breakfast clubs and on the holiday activities and food programme, which I helped to set up when I was a Minister in the Department, and where there is now £200 million-plus a year.