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Topical Questions

Volume 723: debated on Monday 28 November 2022

I, too, pay tribute to my predecessor and the ministerial team. Last week’s national teaching awards celebrated the inspiring work our brilliant teachers do, and I am sure the whole House will join me in congratulating this year’s winners and saying a massive thank you to incredible teachers such as Angela Williams, who won the lifetime achievement award, after 37 years of inspiring young minds in the Huddersfield and Kirklees area. During her career, she has helped more than 18,000 young people to achieve their dreams.

This Government recognise that a good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better. That is why we are investing an extra £2 billion in our schools next year and the year after, and that will be the highest real-time spending on schools in history. That is what was asked for by teachers, heads and unions. Given that, I very much hope that both sides of the House will be united in calling on the unions to end the threat of strike action as our children work hard to catch up on lost learning.

I welcome this ministerial team, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who did such a brilliant job as Chair of the Select Committee on Education. I look forward to working with them all and seeking to hold them to account. I have heard concerns from both sides of the House, including today from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), about the affordability of childcare, and I am keen that the Select Committee urgently looks into that matter. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to meet the Prime Minister’s objective of education being a silver bullet and helping more people into work, affordable childcare is essential?

Yes, I very much agree with my hon. Friend and I would like to take a moment to welcome him to his place. I congratulate him on becoming the Chair of the Education Committee. I am sure he will do a fantastic job and I look forward to working with him.

The early years are a vital part of every child’s education, helping to set them up for life. We are committed to improving the affordability, choice and accessibility of childcare, and have spent more than £20 billion over the past five years supporting families with their childcare costs.

I welcome the new Secretary of State to her position and, I am sure she will agree, to the best job in Government.

Parents in key worker jobs—care workers and teaching assistants—are spending more than a quarter of their pay on childcare. Parents across our country are being forced to give up jobs that they love because of the cost of childcare. Yet, in the last two fiscal statements from the right hon. Lady’s Government, there has been no action to support families. Why not?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and for welcoming me to my place. It is indeed the best job in Government.

We have taken a lot of action in this area. The last Labour Government had 12.5 hours of free childcare. That is now up to 30 hours. We have spent more than £3.5 billion in each of the past three years on early education entitlements and more than £20 billion over the past five years supporting families with the cost of childcare. Thousands of parents are benefiting from Government childcare support, but we will also work to improve the cost, choice and affordability of childcare.

On schools, Labour is committed to ending the tax breaks that private schools enjoy and to investing in driving up standards for every child. Why should we continue to provide such

“egregious state support to the already wealthy”—

the children of plutocrats and oligarchs—

“so that they might buy advantage for their own children”?

Those are not my words, Mr Speaker, but those of the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Does the Secretary of State agree with him?

I agree that the most important thing is to ensure that we focus on every child who goes to a state school getting a brilliant education. That is about 90% of all children in this country. The policy that the hon. Lady has been talking about and that Labour is developing is ill-thought through. Indeed, it could cost money and lead to disruption, as young people move from the private to the state sector. It is the politics of envy. We have fought for an extra £2 billion in the autumn statement, the highest per pupil spend in history, and I am sure that the hon. Lady—

Order. I remind Members that these are topicals and we want to get all the Back Benchers in. We do not want Front Benchers to take up all the time.

T2. The further education capital transformation fund is seeing colleges across the country replan their estates and modernise their facilities. In my constituency, Harrogate College has secured £16 million and is replanning its estate around delivering T-levels and the skills for growth sectors. Is the Minister ensuring that these FE construction projects are all focused on creating estates to deliver the skills needed in the growth sectors of the future and their local economies? (902452)

Yes, and I am delighted to return to the Department as Secretary of State to find that T-levels, which I launched as a Minister, are off to a great start. They are rigorous courses for young people. It is a fantastic achievement that, for the first cohorts of students, the pass rate was 92%. I urge all Members to visit their local college or institute of technology to see what the future of technical education looks like.

Reports that this Government could cause monumental damage to higher education by restricting international students to so-called elite universities have been described by former Universities Minister Lord Johnson as a “mindless crackdown”. Can the Secretary of State confirm that this Government will not implement such a mindless policy?

I can confirm that we have a world-class education system and we will attract the brightest students from around the world. That is good for our universities and delivers growth at home. We were proud to meet our international student ambition earlier this year to attract 600,000 international students per year by 2030. Today that is worth £29.5 billion and we are now focused on bringing in £35 billion from our education exports, which are the best in the world.[Official Report, 19 December 2022, Vol. 725, c. 2MC.]

T3. Like many parts of the country, Aylesbury has too many people who are economically inactive despite the overall unemployment rate being extremely low. We also have many job vacancies where we need people with new or different skills. How can my right hon. Friend’s Department ensure that courses in schools, university technical colleges and colleges equip young people with the right skills for today’s job market? (902454)

The first thing we need to do is invest, and we are investing an extra £3.8 billion over this Parliament in skills. We have introduced the T-levels and higher technical qualifications. We are strengthening careers advice and, of course, championing apprenticeships. I am pleased to say that apprenticeship starts have increased by 8.9% over the past year.

Schools such as King’s Oak primary in Bedford are experiencing significantly increased demand for support around special educational needs and disabilities and social, emotional and mental health needs, due to the cost of living crisis. While additional funding is a relief, the Government need to urgently make clear what the overall funding announcement will mean, to ensure that essential support can be sustained for the most vulnerable children. When will the details be announced?

We have set out the announcements on funding for SEND, which, as I said, has increased by 40% over the past three years for the high needs block funding. We have also set out spending on capital grants. We are setting out early next year our proposals for the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper to make sure that that money is spent well.

Trentham Academy has recently received a very good Ofsted rating, with a number of outstanding features, following significant improvement. But the school building is in a very serious condition, with rat infestations, a number of areas of safety concerns and more than one third of classrooms below 40 square metres. Will my right hon. Friend agree to support Trentham’s being in the school rebuilding programme?

Thanks to my hon. Friend, I am very aware of the serious issues affecting the condition of the Trentham Academy building, and as always he continues to make representations on behalf of the schools in his constituency. We plan to confirm further schools for the school rebuilding programme later this year.

Children growing up in poverty have poorer school outcomes and disadvantage, which often blights lives into adulthood. The autumn statement funding announcements, much vaunted today, will only restore real-terms per pupil funding to what it was in 2010, at a time when experts are urgently calling for a new child poverty strategy to tackle that widening gap. Given the Government’s so-called commitment to levelling up and social mobility, when will they announce that new strategy?

The hon. Lady should know that the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the additional schools funding announced in the autumn statement— some £2 billion extra on top of the money already announced in the White Paper—and £3.5 billion in the spending review will fully cover expected school costs up to 2024. As she rightly says, it will take spending per pupil back to at least 2010 levels in real terms, which she will recall was the highest ever level of funding.

One pledge in our 2019 manifesto was the introduction of an arts premium. The British arts are central to our soft power projection across the globe and they start in the classroom. I will be teaching an acting class in Clacton very soon; in case the question is raised, can the Minister tell me that there will be a commitment to an arts premium or an arts-specific package?

I would love to see my hon. Friend’s acting class at some stage. The arts and music are an essential part of a broad and balanced curriculum. That is why we have published, for example, a detailed model music curriculum based on best practice. Given the significant impact of covid-19 on children’s education, priorities were necessarily focused on education recovery in the last spending review, but we—

Order. I will just say once again, Minister, please stop taking advantage of these poor Back Benchers, who are desperate to get their questions in.

It is estimated that 4,000 Muslim young people every year choose, with a heavy heart, not to enter higher education because their faith bars them from paying interest on a student loan. David Cameron said nine years ago that he would fix that. Will the new ministerial team, whom I welcome, commit to introducing alternative student finance and give us some indication of when that will be?

I am strongly committed to introducing alternative student finance, something my Harlow constituents have also lobbied me about. The issue is that we want, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, to introduce the lifelong learning entitlement, and we will introduce alternative student finance in conjunction with that.

In Chelmsford, we are very proud that Anglia Ruskin University has more students graduating in health and social care-related subjects than any other university in the country, but the university would not be able to provide such high-quality courses to students from the UK if it did not have the income from overseas students. Can my right hon. Friend categorically confirm that the UK will continue to welcome students from across the word to all our universities?

I have good news for my right hon. Friend: we were proud to meet our international target of 600,000 students by 2030; we have actually met that target already. It is currently worth £25.9 billion to the economy and it will be £35 billion by 2030.

In his autumn statement, the Chancellor said that he wanted to make the United Kingdom a science superpower, yet academic researchers and scientists are being hamstrung by the continued failure to reassociate the UK with the Horizon programme. What discussions are Ministers having with EU counterparts to re-engage the UK in the Horizon programme?

Our preference remains for an association to Horizon Europe. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government have committed £20 billion to R&D by 2024-25, and we have just announced the Horizon Europe guarantee, a grant offer with a total value of £500 million issued by UK Research and Innovation.

T9. Good career guidance gives everyone—particularly those from less advantaged backgrounds—the ambition, self-belief and work ethic to take life chances whenever they appear and to level up our country. Will the Secretary of State consider making it impossible for a school to get an overall Ofsted inspection grade of good or better if its career guidance is not up to standard, in the same way as already happens if its safeguarding regime is not up to scratch? (902460)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: careers advice is central to getting young people on the skills ladder of opportunity. We have strengthened careers advice with the Baker clause. Ofsted is carrying out a review of careers training in schools and colleges. We are investing £30 million to support schools and colleges in careers, and setting up careers hubs in secondary schools and colleges.

I welcome the Secretary of State and her team to their roles. May I start by congratulating the Government on their international education strategy, which has already been mentioned? The Secretary of State knows that international students contribute £30 billion a year to the UK economy—much of it in areas identified by the Government for levelling up—and that they are vital to the viability of our universities, enrich learning for UK students and strengthen our role in the world. Does she therefore share the concern of Members on both sides of the House about reports that consideration is being given to returning to the failed policy of restricting numbers, and will she raise that concern with the Home Secretary?

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I could not have put it better myself. International students add enormous value. As I mentioned in my previous answer and in the Westminster Hall debate we had a couple of weeks ago, we have met our target of 600,000 students a year early—before 2030—and that remains our target. By 2030, that will mean £35 billion-plus in exports.

I am concerned about the provision of music in state schools. A report by the British Phonographic Industry states that the provision has decreased dramatically in recent years. It estimates that

“30% of state schools have seen a decrease in curriculum time for music, or a reduction in the number of qualified music teachers.”

Can my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State assure me that the Government recognise that, and update me on the steps that her Department is taking?

The 2021-22 academic year saw more than 86,000 hours of music teaching in secondary schools—the highest number since 2014. They were taught by more than 7,000 music teachers in secondary schools—the highest number since 2015. Schools should provide timetabled curriculum music of at least one hour a week. We have published an excellent model music curriculum that schools can lean on to help to deliver that.

Why will the Secretary of State not listen to her Cabinet colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up and the Government’s own food adviser by expanding the eligibility for free school meals? Hungry children cannot learn and tend to behave badly, too.

I think we have already discussed this to some degree, but we have extended free school meal availability. Now, more than one third of children in school settings have access to a free nutritious meal. We are spending £1.9 billion on that facility.

I met a 12-year-old constituent a couple of weeks ago. He has been excluded from school and is now being home tutored, but he is struggling to see where his home tutoring will get him in his aspiration to become a mechanical engineer. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss getting some provision that will suit my constituent and people like him in my constituency?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I thoroughly enjoyed working with her on many things vocational and technical education when I was last in the Department. We very much need more mechanical engineers, so I encourage that young student and very much look forward to working with my hon. Friend.

We have been delivering defibrillators in schools up and down the country—it is a successful programme. I will write to the hon. Member with the precise figures that she is seeking.[Official Report, 29 November 2022, Vol. 723, c. 8MC.]

First, I congratulate all the staff and pupils of Ferryhill Station Primary School, where I was once a governor. Led by the head, Joanne Sones, it has now achieved an Ofsted rating of good.

I am sure the Minister would like all pupils everywhere to develop their sports skills and improve their mental health through sport. What is being done to focus the sports premium on schools in challenging areas such as Ferryhill? I would also encourage the Minister to come and—

Order. I am sorry, Mr Howell, but you are taking complete advantage. That is totally not fair to others. I call the Minister.

Improving school sport and PE is a key priority, and we recognise the important role that they play. We are considering arrangements for the primary PE and sports premium for the 2023-24 academic year. I pay tribute to the headteacher of Ferryhill Station Primary School for achieving “good” in the Ofsted inspection.

The Government funded 128 new special educational needs places at the Austen Academy in Basingstoke, which opened about a year ago, but a new, permanent academy trust is needed to operate the school. Will my hon. Friend meet me to discuss the importance of making that appointment swiftly?

I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend. She is an incredible campaigner on these issues, which are also important to the Government.

King Edmund School, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), is currently closed while building materials containing asbestos are removed from the site. Will the ministerial team look into this situation with a view to getting kids safely back to school as quickly as possible?

Yes, I certainly will look into that. The school was initially closed as a precaution while we carried out enhanced testing. Testing is now complete, and the school buildings are safe, but asbestos remains on the site of a previously demolished building, so the school will remain closed while that is removed. However, we are doing everything possible to ensure that the school site reopens by 3 January.