Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 708: debated on Monday 31 January 2022

As was explained to the House earlier, the Secretary of State is currently isolating, but on behalf of him, myself and the Department, I thank the staff and young people and their families across education and childcare for their perseverance and dedication. Face coverings are no longer recommended in schools, colleges or universities. Regular testing, vaccinations and enhanced ventilation continue to help to reduce transmission and thereby protect face-to-face education, which is our No. 1 priority.

The Government will spend another £8 million to support the crucial in-school vaccination programme. After the delivery of more than 353,000 carbon dioxide monitors, we are following the evidence and delivering up to 9,000 air-cleaning devices to fulfil all eligible applications where there is less natural ventilation. Because this Government have got the big calls right, 99% of children are back in school and learning face to face.

The most deprived schools have seen the largest cuts over the past decade, with a 14% real-terms fall in per-pupil spending between 2009-10 and 2019-20, compared with a drop of only 9% for the least deprived schools. That is not levelling up. Is the Minister content that her Government are funnelling money away from the schools and communities that need it the most?

As the hon. Member knows, this Government are determined to level up, which is exactly why we have introduced a real-terms 5% increase in school funding and have the highest ever level of pupil premium.

T3. The Secretary of State is sadly unable to be with us today, but will one of his Ministers commit him to meet me to discuss the universal accreditation scheme proposed in my recently published “Poverty Trapped” paper? It would mean that universities and colleges could give credit for knowledge and skills gained not just in formal education but in work or informal settings, to make it easier, cheaper and faster to switch careers and to level up opportunities so that everyone has a better chance to succeed. (905354)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his report. I very much share his sentiments about the importance of recognising prior learning. Currently, further education providers can use their own discretion when they assess learners’ experience, but we are examining how we can encourage the greater use of knowledge in respect of prior learning. I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s invitation to the Secretary of State.

Today, I send my love to the family of Jack Dromey, who will be deeply missed by us all. Through you, Mr Speaker, I also send to the Secretary of State my best wishes for a swift recovery.

According to the most recent figures, the number of children who are out of school because of covid has risen by 34%. In the light of that, do Ministers not regret all the time and energy they have wasted on defending the Prime Minister rather than prioritising our children’s learning?

The hon. Lady may wish to play party politics, but we are focused on making sure that children can safely learn in schools.

If only that were true. It is a year this week since the Prime Minister appointed Sir Kevan Collins

“to oversee a comprehensive programme of catch-up”,

only for Sir Kevan later to resign in protest because, in his words, the Government’s plans risked

“failing hundreds of thousands of pupils.”

We can all see covid’s impact on children’s learning and wellbeing. Labour’s “Children’s Recovery Plan” meets the scale of the challenge we face, so when will the Minister finally put children first and match Labour’s ambition for their future?

I am delighted that this Government are investing £5 billion in education recovery, and that we have a Prime Minister who two years ago delivered on a key manifesto promise to take this country out of theusb EU.

T4. The main issue in schools across Hampshire at the moment is SEND provision. There is a major increase in need as more students obtain their education, health and care plans, but a significant shortfall in personnel, even though the funding is in place. Will the Minister meet me and Steve Jones of Perins School, which is in my constituency—the dreaded Zoom is absolutely fine—so that we can talk about recruitment not only of teachers, but of student-facing support staff? (905355)

Let me take this opportunity to thank all those who work in mainstream and specialist SEND settings for everything that they do. Schools have the freedom to recruit support staff to match their circumstances, and last year they recruited 6,000 more. Of course, I will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.

Times Higher Education has reported that several UK universities are providing Afghan Chevening scholars with considerable financial assistance, from food vouchers to laptops. Although that is to be commended, it is shocking that the financial contribution of the UK is not covering what these students need. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to increase the financial contribution and to properly support these Afghan students?

I welcome the contribution that universities are also making to Afghan refugees. I will meet the hon. Member to detail exactly what the Government have done to support those studying here.

T6. Will the Minister join me in thanking the headteacher and staff of Ivel Valley School in my constituency? They are in discussions regarding a much-needed refurbishment. Will the Minister advise me on what the Government’s plan is for upgrading the estate of schools that deal with children who have severe learning difficulties? (905357)

My hon. Friend and I recently visited an excellent alternative provision setting—the Academy of Central Bedfordshire—and he will know that we are investing an extra £2.6 billion between 2022 and 2025 to deliver an additional 30,000 places and to improve existing provision for children with SEND. Of course, I echo his thanks.

T2. Schools in east Hull have gone above and beyond to ensure that kids keep learning during the pandemic, and I thank each and every school leader, teacher and support staff member for that, but they have been badly let down by this Government. Last term, 10,600 school days were lost as a result of this Government’s failure. When will the Minister adopt the ambitious, comprehensive schools recovery plan put forward by the shadow Secretary of State, which will do what needs to be done? (905353)

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but we have a strong plan for recovery in schools and a strong plan for attendance, which is vital. There has been unavoidable absence as a result of covid, but we must crack down on avoidable absence, which is a reason for one of my visits to the north-east last week.

We in Stoke-on-Trent are proud to be the home of Staffordshire University, but sadly it seems that cancel culture has arrived on our doorstep after the wokerati made formal complaints about criminology professor James Treadwell for tweeting that transgender women should not be allowed in women’s prisons, citing research that found that half of women in prison have experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Does my right hon. Friend share my despair over this tiny extreme minority, who wish to silence anyone whose opinion they disagree with, and will she join me in lending support to Professor Treadwell?

We are a Government who are committed to ensuring free speech on our campuses, which is exactly why we are honouring our manifesto commitment and bringing free speech legislation to the House. I point out that the University of Sussex is already being investigated by the Office for Students. Other universities should take note.

T5. Research published by the Social Market Foundation has shown that students from working-class backgrounds accepted into university are more likely than their peers to hold a BTEC qualification. After failing my GCSEs as a working-class 16-year-old, it was a BTEC in performing arts that got me back into education and ultimately into university. The Minister has already been asked this question by my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), but does he agree that the decision to hastily remove BTEC funding makes a mockery of the Government’s claims to be levelling up in education? (905356)

The hon. Lady will have heard my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State extend the timescale for T-levels on Second Reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. I am sure that she would have benefited from being able to do a T-level when she was at school. It would have given her nine weeks of work placement, and she would have done a qualification designed with employers that would have led to a job in the economy.

Given that section 406(1)(b) of the Education Act 1996 already outlaws

“the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”,

will the Government take appropriate action without further delay against Brighton and Hove City Council, which is planning to indoctrinate seven-year-olds with critical race theory?

My hon. Friend the Minister for Equalities has been clear that critical race theory should never be taught as that—it is a contentious political viewpoint. We are working on making sure that we update our guidance on political impartiality in school, to make that absolutely clear.

T7. Upton-by-Chester High School in my constituency is rated good with an outstanding sixth form, but it keeps getting overlooked for replacement of its 1960s prefab buildings, which are falling apart. When will the Government announce the new guidelines, and will they look kindly on Upton High’s application? (905359)

I know that the hon. Gentleman recently met my noble Friend the Minister for the School System to discuss the case for that school. Cheshire West and Chester Council received £4.6 million in school condition allocations this financial year. Our school rebuilding programme will deliver 500 projects over the next decade, transforming education for thousands of pupils. The hon. Gentleman has made his case once again.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to lifelong learning and level 3 qualifications, but my hon. Friend the Skills Minister will know that many residents across the country will need significant help with levels 1 and 2 in order to access that offer. Will he meet representatives of West Notts College and me to discuss how we might be able to offer that support to people in Mansfield?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. We are reforming level 2 qualifications. The Chancellor has announced our plans for Multiply, a new project to help people with numeracy of all ages.

T8. Primary and secondary schools alike are telling me that the biggest challenge they face is covid-related staff absence. Anywhere between 15% and 20% of school staff are missing. Could the Minister confirm how many volunteers have signed up to the teacher volunteer drive? What are we doing to keep teachers in schools so that we can keep them safe? (905360)

The Government’s covid guidance is about keeping both staff and pupils safe. On the hon. Lady’s point about volunteers, we published figures at the beginning of January that show that, at that point, responses from about a quarter of supply agencies showed that 585 teachers had come forward in answer to that call to arms. We expect the full number to be significantly higher.

According to the latest Ofsted inspection ratings, only 55% of Derbyshire secondary schools are rated good or better, compared with a national benchmark of 80%. If levelling up is to mean anything, it must be about fixing the glaring educational inequality. Will the Minister agree to meet me and fellow Derbyshire MPs to discuss how we can improve education standards and opportunity for all in Derbyshire?

The chatty mums network of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe recently met me to raise concerns about the cost of living and lack of affordable childcare. What assessment have Ministers made of the impact of cuts to universal credit and the new Tory tax on working mums from April?

There is a substantial offer in place to support parents with childcare costs. In 2021, 328,700 children had a Government-funded early education entitlement place for 30 hours, worth up to £6,000.

Before Christmas, the Secretary of State made a statement about the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson. To that grisly list has now been added Amina-Faye Johnson. He announced a review by the serious case review national panel. When will that review be published, and can the Minister assure us that it will be published in full and action will be taken?

The child safeguarding practice review panel will deliver a national independent review of Arthur and Star’s tragic deaths, to identify what we must learn, and it will report in May.

Last week, the journalist and presenter Ashley John-Baptiste shared his personal story in the BBC documentary “Split Up In Care—Life Without Siblings”. His story is not unusual, nor is it a past feature of our care system. Thousands of children removed from their families, alone and scared, are denied relationships with their siblings, despite all the evidence showing that this relationship and bond is one of the most significant and enduring. Why do this Government stubbornly refuse to make changes to the Children Act 1989 and give sibling contact for children in care?

The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. We have the independent review into children’s social care led by Josh MacAlister, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss this important issue further.

I recently met my school leaders and heard how, in a recent inspection by Ofsted, no account had been taken of staff absence due to covid. Can my hon. Friend confirm that Ofsted should take into account covid impact when inspecting and set that out in writing?

I can say to my hon. Friend that having discussed this matter with Her Majesty’s chief inspector, I know that she does take such impacts into account. Ofsted is offering deferrals to schools facing particularly high levels of staff absence, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the case to which he refers.

Before we move on to the first statement, I assure the House that following the comments made at the start of questions—[Interruption.] I do not think that is appropriate for what I am going to say. You ought to be ashamed. I assure the House that following the comments made at the start of questions, there will be an opportunity to pay tribute to our friend and colleague the late Jack Dromey. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That will take place on Wednesday. I am sure that hon. and right hon. Members will welcome the opportunity to pay tribute at that point.

I should inform the House that given the brief period of time available to review the report, I will be allowing the Leaders of the Opposition parties a little longer to question the Prime Minister than is usually the case. I am sure the Prime Minister may wish to take a little longer at the beginning.