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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 734: debated on Monday 12 June 2023


The Secretary of State was asked—

Industrial Dispute Resolution

After an intense negotiation with all four trade unions, we made a fair and reasonable offer, which would have been fully funded through £620 million of additional funding, on top of the additional £2 billion already announced for both this year and next—a cash injection that means that by next year we will be funding our schools at the highest level in history, totalling £58.8 billion. Unfortunately, the trade unions rejected our offer. We are in the process of reviewing the independent School Teachers’ Review Body’s recommendation on teacher pay for 2023-24, and we will publish our response in the usual way.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. One issue in the dispute is recruitment and retention. Recent stats show a record number of teachers—nearly 48,000—entering the profession. That means that in Barnet there are 227 more teachers than in 2010. Does she agree that those encouraging figures are another good reason to call off the dispute and end the disruption to children’s education?

I, too, am encouraged by the record numbers entering the teaching profession. We are doing a lot to attract the top talent into teaching through financial incentives totalling £181 million, including bursaries, scholarships and a levelling-up premium in priority areas. We are also delivering on our commitment to raise starting salaries to at least £30,000. We know that there is more to do, but the data shows that the steps we are taking are benefiting children and teachers, in Chipping Barnet and across the country.

It is six weeks until the end of the summer term and headteachers are desperately trying to budget. They need the STRB proposals on pay now, as well as information on how they will be funded. The release of that information could prevent all the strikes, which we know will damage the education of so many. When will headteachers have the information they desperately need, including to help to retain some of the excellent teachers we keep losing?

This is the same process we follow every year. We take the independent pay review body’s recommendations seriously, are considering the report and will publish in due course, just as we do every year.

I met some National Education Union reps in my office for an hour and a half last week, and they were shocked to hear that I was going to say this to the House today. If the STRB has recommended that teachers should get a 6.5% pay rise—it was meant to report in May, something I signed off when I was in the Department—they should be given that pay rise. The Minister will rightly ask where that money is going to come from. I say we take it out of the foreign aid budget, year in, year out.

Following the union’s rejection of the Government’s fair, reasonable and funded offer, the report has been submitted by the independent STRB. I will not comment on speculation or leaks, or indeed on funding, but we will consider the recommendations and publish our response in due course.

The Scottish Government did not stonewall the unions and have not claimed that the unions are responsible for all our social ills. The Scottish Government engaged constructively with unions, in education and elsewhere in the public sector, and have agreed a pay deal that means that Scottish teacher salaries will increase by 14.6%—I will say that again: 14.6%—by January next year. In this tale of two Governments, which Government can teachers trust to look after their interests?

Pay awards for this year needed to strike a careful balance between recognising the vital importance of teachers and the work they do, and being affordable and not exacerbating inflation. We have taken that very seriously. We also take standards seriously, and I am delighted that the standards in England are continuing to rise. The question with teachers’ pay rises is always: are they funded? I am aware that the Scottish Government have had to take the funding from other places, including skills and higher education.

We were all reminded today that the Secretary of State is already keen to move on, yet parents know that it is her ongoing failure to resolve the disputes that is damaging our children’s education. She told us to wait for the independent pay review body’s recommendations. Those have been made and now she refuses to publish them. Will she come clean, allow headteachers to plan for September and publish the recommendations today?

I assure the hon. Lady that I have no intention of moving on—I am sure she will be delighted to hear that. This is the same process that we go through every year. I take the independent teachers review body very seriously. That is why, on my very first day in this job, when I had a letter from all the teaching unions asking for an additional £2 billion to fund the increase for last year that the STRB had recommended, which was much higher than the 3% that schools had budgeted, I took it seriously and got that extra funding. That takes time. I have just received the report. We are considering the recommendations and we will definitely publish it within the same sort of timeframes that we usually publish it.

Financial Support for Students

2. Whether she has had recent discussions with her counterparts in the devolved Administrations on financial support for (a) school and (b) higher education students in the context of increases in the cost of living. (905302)

This is a timely question, as just last Thursday I met representatives from across the UK to discuss that very topic. In England, we have put in place significant support to help students and families alike with the cost of living. This year alone, the Government will spend around £37 billion on cost of living support. We provide free school meals to more than one third of children in education and we have boosted our student premium this year, spending £276 million.

Expanding free school meals to all children in universal credit households is not controversial. New data from the Food Foundation shows that 80% of the English general public support it. The Scottish Government have already committed to providing universal free school meals for all primary children. Why is the Secretary of State’s Department fuelling the poverty cycle and failing to give deprived children the very best start in life?

I take my role of giving children the very best start in life incredibly seriously. This Government spend more than £1 billion annually delivering free school meals to pupils in schools. More than one third of pupils in schools in England receive a free meal, which, incidentally, compares with one sixth under Labour in 2010. We must also ensure that students are supported in school holidays; that is why we have introduced the holiday activities and food programme.

I welcomed my right hon. Friend’s announcement in January that tuition fees would be frozen for the sixth year in a row. That is welcome news for students and the country. Does she agree that that will deliver better value for students and rightly keep down the cost of higher education across the United Kingdom?

We are always committed to ensuring that students get good value for money, that they have a valuable experience at university and that they get the qualifications they need for the future. In addition to keeping tuition fees flat, we have introduced and boosted degree apprenticeships—as my right hon. Friend knows, I am a huge fan of those—where, if people want to earn and learn, they can get their degrees paid for by their apprenticeship.

Local Business Needs: Skills Development

3. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support the development of skills in communities that meet local business needs. (905303)

12. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to support the development of skills in communities that meet local business needs. (905314)

I am delighted that we will be rolling out the local skills improvement plans from this summer. The LSIPs will put local employers at the heart of developing skills provision to meet the needs of their businesses, ensuring that people get the right skills to get good local jobs. In my own Chichester constituency, the Sussex LSIP is working to meet the needs of many sectors, including our horticultural industry, worth £1 billion a year to the local economy. Other hon. Members in rural seats will understand the recruitment challenges facing agrifood businesses. Our skills plan will bring together providers such as colleges to create more opportunities for people to get the skills businesses need, and that will be going on across the country.

My Southport constituency has a unique seaside heritage and vital industry support. Can my right hon. Friend elaborate on how those steps will specifically support skills in the sectors of hospitality, tourism and coastal conservation?

I know my hon. Friend is doing a lot to support businesses in our great seaside towns. We are increasing collaboration with colleges, employers and the chamber of commerce. The plan has been informed by hundreds of local businesses such as Lattimer, Access Point, EFT Construction, Bulldog Products and Stormspell. The visitor economy has been identified as a priority for the city region, with actions being taken to establish a working group to develop basic skills courses and to increase off-season study and training, management apprenticeships and access to work placements for students in and around the area.

The seaside will be grateful for that excellent response. Denise Rossiter, chief executive officer of Essex chambers of commerce, is working with local businesses such as Adventure Island to come together and deliver a local skills improvement plan that will help my seaside town to deliver a pipeline of talent for all sectors, including digitech, engineering and manufacturing. That will drive the local economy. Will the Secretary of State support the funding bid for that great work and the great city of Southend, and may I invite her to Adventure Island?

That sounds like too good an invitation to miss. I thank my hon. Friend for being such a champion for skills development in Rochford and Southend East. I know that many local employers, including Essex & Suffolk Water, Rose Builders, Ground Control, DP World London Gateway, Adventure Island and Constellation Marketing, are working with the Essex chambers of commerce and South Essex College to steer the LSIP. Many businesses up and down the country will benefit from our £165 million local skills improvement fund that providers, including South Essex College, will apply for. I look forward to receiving the proposal for the Essex, Southend and Thurrock area.

The reality is that almost 4 million fewer adults have taken part in learning since 2010, there are 200,000 fewer apprenticeship starts over the last decade, and part-time undergraduate student numbers have fallen by 50%. What is the Secretary of State doing to reverse the decade of decline in skills and training opportunities that is making Britain poorer?

What I am doing is ensuring that the quality is better. It is very easy to chase numbers and targets. The Labour Government did that a lot—some of the things in which they used to invest for skills were not of any value at all, either to the individual or to a single business in this country. We are ensuring that we work closely with employers. We have worked with them to design the T-levels qualification. We have worked with 5,000 of them to build the apprenticeship standards. We have had 5.4 million apprenticeship starts since 2010, and all of them are of a high quality that will give people the skills they need to get the jobs they want.

The hospitality and tourism industry is the biggest employer in Cumbria and is worth £3.5 billion to the economy every year. Yet those businesses are suffering a huge staffing crisis: 63% of them are operating below capacity because they cannot find enough staff. One solution is to recruit and train our own young people into the industry, and a T-level would surely be one way of doing that, but sadly, the Secretary of State’s Government have decided to kick the catering T-level into the long grass. Will she rethink that and bring it back front and centre of her campaign to ensure that young people get into that important industry with the right qualifications?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is a vital industry, not just in areas of tourism but across the country. We have many full-time hospitality and catering courses at various levels and lots of apprenticeships as well. We will bring forward and look at T-levels and at what more we need in that area, and potentially at management in the sector as well; I know that businesses are looking for more skills in that.

The Secretary of State says that she is listening to businesses, but if she were, she would hear that Labour’s plan to devolve adult education budgets to local communities and directly elected Mayors, and to change the apprenticeship levy into a more flexible growth and skills levy, has won widespread support from across the business community. Why is she so determined to stand against what employers say they want, and to hold learners, employers and our economy back?

That is a good question. The hon. Gentleman is right that employers have often asked for that flexibility in the levy. I do not think that anybody in this House doubts my support for apprenticeships—they were my golden ticket and, I am convinced, are a very good way into the workplace. Labour Members have said that they want to build flexibilities into the levy. The problem with their calculations is that, at this moment, we are spending 99.6% of the levy on apprentices. Their policy is based on levy payer spend, not levy payer budget. That means that the biggest losers from the policy would be small and medium-sized businesses and about half of current apprentices.

Children with Special Educational Needs

4. What recent discussions she has had with her counterparts in the devolved Administrations on support for children with special educational needs. (905304)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we published the special educational needs and disabilities and alternative provision improvement plan in March this year. Although the plan applies only to England, we shared a pre-publication draft with the devolved Administrations to build understanding of our proposals.

I thank the Minister for her response and for her interest in exchanging such ideas with Northern Ireland. Whether we are on the United Kingdom mainland or in Northern Ireland, money is under pressure. As someone who has been an elected representative in local government, in the council, as a Member of the Legislative Assembly and as a Member of Parliament, I am very aware that many more people seem to have special educational needs. When people have to wait up to seven months for an assessment, the cut in money is detrimental. Will the Minister share the ideas from the mainland here in the UK with the Department of Education back home? There are many ideas and thoughts on classroom assistants on the mainland, and it would be good to exchange those ideas and thoughts with the Assembly in Northern Ireland.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is a passionate campaigner on such issues. He will know that education is devolved, but Ministers engage with our counterparts through the UK Education Ministers Council, and a session was held just last week, on 8 June.

Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities

5. What steps she is taking to help improve support for children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. (905305)

7. What steps she is taking to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (905307)

21. What steps she is taking to improve provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities. (905323)

I want every child and young person, regardless of their special educational need or disability, to receive the right support to enjoy their childhood and succeed in life. The SEND and AP improvement plan, published in March 2023, sets out the next steps that we are taking to deliver a more positive experience for children, young people and families.

The Children’s Commissioner has expressed concerns about the gaps in the Government’s plan to improve the system for children with special educational needs and disabilities, identifying:

“A vicious cycle of late intervention, low confidence and inefficient resource allocation”

that needs addressing. In particular, she points to the issues for looked-after children with SEND. Given that the plan is to be implemented by 2025, what are the Government doing now to achieve those things?

We have not waited to take action on this issue. We have increased, for example, high needs block funding by 50% over the last four years to 2023-24. We have set out £2.6 billion to increase the number of specialist schools. We have also hired educational psychologists. We have done a lot of work to date, but the reforms are ambitious and wide-ranging and they will, I hope, help with the issues mentioned.

The need for more specialist school places is raised frequently by parents in my constituency, and children are being bounced between mainstream providers that are simply not fit to cater for many advanced needs. Recently, I visited Hillcrest Glebedale School in my constituency, which is keen to expand the number of places. Will the Minister do more to ensure that we support such schools and grow the number of SEND places in Stoke-on-Trent?

I thank all the special schools for the amazing work they do to support children and young people. We have announced more than £1.4 billion of high needs provisional capital allocations to support local authorities to deliver new places for academic years 2023-24 and 2024-25. Local authorities can use that funding to work with any school or institution in their area.

Work has begun on the new Two Bridges Academy in South Gloucestershire, a new school that will support pupils who have severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and autism from the age of two right through to sixth form. Will the Minister join me in thanking the educational trust, the council and all the local groups who are helping to deliver this exciting and innovative project and will she use her office to make sure that it is open by the planned date of September 2024 to help us cope with the growing demand for special educational needs services in South Gloucestershire?

I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in thanking all those involved in the project. The Two Bridges site remains on track to open as planned and work is progressing well. We are committed to working with the trust to ensure that that remains the case.

Weekly Childcare Costs

6. What recent estimate she has made of the average weekly cost of childcare for households with (a) one child and (b) two or more children. (905306)

The cost of childcare depends on hours used a week over weeks per year, provider type, child’s age and region. For this reason, the Department does not produce an official estimate of the average weekly cost of childcare by the number of children in a household. However, this year, Coram estimates the cost of using 25 hours a week of childcare for a child aged under two in a nursery as, on average, £151 across England.

In low-wage economies such as Plymouth, families are struggling to afford decent childcare and are having to choose between working all the hours God sends to afford the nursery bills and leaving the workforce to look after the kids at home. I look forward to meeting the Secretary of State tomorrow to talk about how we can keep south-west nurseries financially afloat, but mums and dads need to be kept afloat as well. What can the Minister do to make childcare more affordable and, importantly, not just load those additional costs on to nurseries that are already struggling to pay their bills?

I completely recognise that this has been difficult for families, but that is exactly why we are taking action. We are making the single largest ever investment in childcare. We will be doubling the amount we spend on it by 2027-28, and that will start with additional funding this year.

Parents were delighted to hear in the spring Budget of the extension of childcare provision, which is being phased in to allow the sector to gear up, recruit and train. Will my hon. Friend give me an update on how that is progressing, in terms of having enough highly skilled people in place to do that important work?

That is the crucial issue when it comes to delivery, and we have already taken steps. We are consulting on flexibilities for the sector to make sure that we have the right people in place for the first part of the roll-out, which will be in April 2024. We have also been making sure that more funding is going into the system this year.

The early years sector has had three months to absorb the Government’s Budget announcement on childcare. Wherever I go in the country, early years professionals tell me that without a plan for expanding and developing the workforce and securing additional premises, the Government’s approach will deliver neither affordable childcare for parents nor high-quality early years education for children. They are clear that relaxing ratios is not the solution they need. What does the Minister intend to do about the deficit in the Government’s plans?

As I said, we have already set out some flexibilities in a consultation that was published last week, and I urge every single person in the early years sector to look at that. I urge the hon. Lady to look at it too, because there are much wider flexibilities in there: for example, looking at qualifications relaxations. Overall, the Government have set out the single largest ever investment into childcare; Labour has not set out a plan at all.

Phonics Teaching: Isle of Wight

8. What assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of phonics teaching in Isle of Wight constituency. (905308)

There is overwhelming evidence that systematic phonics is the most effective method for teaching early reading. The English hubs programme is made up of 34 high-performing primary schools with exemplary practice in the teaching of synthetic phonics and reading. They are using their expertise to spread best practice to nearby schools, and have now reached over 1,600 primary schools. The English hub supporting the Isle of Wight has been helping 11 primary schools on the Island with their teaching of reading.

I thank Ministers, first for the new special educational needs school for the Island—it is much appreciated—and secondly for agreeing to a phonics conference in June. The recent Islands Forum held on the Isle of Wight showed the link between education, jobs and the skills agenda and getting better opportunities for islanders, whether they are in Scotland or down on the Isle of Wight in my patch. On the phonics conference, is the Minister willing to pledge that we will get a centre of excellence for the teaching of phonics on the Island? Our nearest one, however good it is, is on the mainland in Southampton.

My hon. Friend and I have discussed education standards on the Isle of Wight on a number of occasions, and I pay tribute to him for the support he gives his schools and his determination to see standards rise in those schools. The Springhill English hub that he referred to is supporting primary schools on the Island to improve their teaching of phonics. As I said, it is already working with 11 primary schools, five of which have received intensive support, with the intention of ultimately finding a school on the Isle of Wight itself that has sufficient expertise to spread practice within the Island. That conference is taking place at the end of the month, and I hope all primary schools will be able to attend.

Technical Education at Secondary Schools

9. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of technical education pathways at secondary schools. (905310)

15. Whether her Department is taking steps to increase the provision of specialist technical education at secondary schools. (905317)

To complement our reformed, more rigorous GCSEs, we are ensuring that high-quality vocational and technical qualifications are available. We have introduced new technical awards at key stage 4 in engineering, technology and many other subjects, and we have our own prestigious T-level offerings for those from 16 years old onwards.

I am very proud to have Aylesbury University Technical College in my constituency. It provides excellent technical education for young students on a specialist pathway, but not everywhere has those specialist schools. As such, a proposal has been made to my right hon. Friend’s Department to introduce UTC-style courses in mainstream schools for some pupils who are perhaps better suited to that type of education at key stage 4. What progress has the Department made in assessing the feasibility of such courses, which would provide the qualifications, employment skills and work experience that are so important to today’s economy?

My hon. Friend is a champion of UTCs, and he knows that they are equipping students with the skills that employers need. I congratulate Aylesbury UTC on the new health and social care suite it is opening later this month. As he mentions, Baker Dearing Educational Trust has proposed a pilot for a technical curriculum in a small number of existing schools, and the Department will take a decision on that shortly.

Students in my Meon Valley constituency who want to go to a university technical college can apply only to the excellent but oversubscribed one in Portsmouth. I am supporting the Portsmouth UTC in its bid to expand into Southampton, which will increase the numbers who are able to take advantage of this excellent education route and give choice to young people in my constituency. Can my right hon. Friend confirm when his Department will announce support for the next round of UTCs?

My hon. Friend is a champion of skills, and she is right that UTCs, such as the outstanding Portsmouth UTC, are providing students with skills that will lead to rewarding technical careers. The Department is carefully assessing the free schools applications received against the published criteria and intends to announce the successful proposals before the summer. It is worth mentioning that UTCs have high destination outcomes at key stage 5, especially into apprenticeships.

Teachers: Recruitment and Retention

The school workforce census published last week shows that the number of teachers has increased by a further 2,800 this year. There are now more than 468,000 teachers in the state system in England. We have invested £181 million in recruitment this year, including training bursaries and scholarships worth up to £29,000, and we are delivering £30,000 starting salaries, reforming teacher training, delivering half a million training opportunities and working with the sector to address teacher workload and wellbeing.

The Minister mentions the data released last week, but it also highlights the unacceptable consequences of real-terms cuts to teachers’ pay and unmanageable workloads. It shows that posts without a teacher have more than doubled in the past two years. Last week, I met with NASUWT North East and the South Tyneside branch of the National Education Union, which raised concerns about the impact of the recruitment and retention crisis. When will the Minister take action to tackle this crisis by increasing teachers’ pay and reducing their workload?

In terms of teachers’ pay, we are waiting for the Government’s response. We have received and are looking at the School Teachers Review Body’s recommendations now, and we will respond in the normal way and on the normal timing. In terms of workload, we set up three important workload working groups, and over the years that has resulted in the working hours of teachers coming down by five hours a week, and we have pledged to do more to reduce that further.

There were 44,000 leavers from the teaching profession last year. That is 9.7% of the total workforce, and the leaver rate is the highest it has been since 2018. The Government have missed their secondary teacher recruitment targets every year for the past 10 years bar one. All that is yet more evidence of how the incompetent Conservative Government have created the recruitment and retention crisis among teachers, and schools in Slough and across our country are lamenting the detrimental impact on our children’s education. Minister, what are the Government doing to urgently fix the recruitment and retention crisis?

If the hon. Member looks at the tables attached to the school workforce census, he will see that we have returned to pre-pandemic levels of recruitment. If he looks over a period of years, he will see that the number of teachers coming into state-funded schools and the number leaving are broadly similar.

The abandonment of respectful address, such as “sir”, will not help, will it? Apparently it is because the female equivalent, “Miss”, is considered demeaning. Might I suggest the substitution of “ma’am”? It was good enough for Her late Majesty.

My right hon. Friend should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers. Behaviour in our schools is improving. We have set up behaviour hubs around the country to ensure that best practice is spread throughout the school system.

Last week, the Minister’s Department celebrated the latest teacher recruitment and retention figures, with the numbers showing that 40,000 teachers left the profession last year—the highest number since records began. Does he really think that is worth celebrating?

As I said earlier, if the hon. Member were to look at the tables attached to the school workforce census, he would see that the number of teachers coming into the state sector and those leaving are broadly similar, and they have a broadly similar pattern across the years. For example, the number of teachers leaving last year—44,000—compares with the 42,500 who left the profession in 2010-11. The challenge we have faced over the last 13 or 14 years is that we have created an extra 1 million school places in our schools. However, over that period, the pupil-teacher ratio in secondary schools, particularly in the last few years, has been broadly similar—it has risen slightly, but it has been broadly similar—despite the fact that we have increased the number of school places by over 1 million.

Student Visas: Higher Education

11. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on the potential impact of changes to the student visa route on the competitiveness of the higher education sector. (905312)

The UK is home to some of the world’s top universities, which benefit from strong international ties—so much so that it is impressive that UK universities have educated 55 of the current world leaders. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I are proud of our higher education sector and our commitment to having at least 600,000 international students study here every year. The change we are making will restrict the right of postgraduate students on taught courses to bring in dependants. This decision strikes the right balance to ensure that we have a fair and robust migration policy, and maintain the UK’s place as a top destination for the best and brightest from around the world.

The Higher Education Statistics Authority has shown that 55% of UK universities recorded a deficit in the last academic year. One of the key sources of revenue for universities is international students, who account for almost one fifth of the income of the UK’s higher education sector, and Scottish institutions are paying the price. Does the Secretary of State recognise that her Government’s policy change on student dependants risks jeopardising the key income stream for many financially strained universities across the UK and in Scotland?

No. Our offer to international students remains very competitive, and we are committed to ensuring that the UK remains a destination of choice for international students from across the globe. International students do make a significant economic contribution to the UK economy and to our universities, and they make a significant cultural contribution. These changes will predominantly impact on the dependants of students and, in our view, will not impact on the competitive nature of our university offer.

The Opposition more than recognise the huge value brought to the world-class higher education system by international students. That said, we were clear that we would not oppose the changes the Government have made to student visa rules. However, in responding to a written question earlier today, the Home Office stated that “any indirect impact” of its student visa policies should be “proportionate” to the aims. Will the Secretary of State explain how, given that the Government have failed to conduct an impact assessment, she knows this to be true?

The problem we were trying to solve is that we saw the number of dependants rise more than eightfold from 16,000 in 2019 to 136,000 in 2022, which is an unprecedented increase. Therefore, I fully support the Home Secretary in taking action to reduce the number. From January 2024, students coming to the UK to take postgraduate taught courses will not be allowed to bring in dependants, but students coming for many other courses, such as PhDs or research masters, will still be able to bring in dependants. The international education world is very competitive, which is why we put together an international education strategy—this is the first time we have done it—and why we have somebody working with our universities to make sure that we can attract the best and brightest into our universities, and I am sure we will continue to do that.

As a former teacher, can I just say that I was quite happy to be called “Miss”? I have been called far worse as an MP.

When asked in December about the merits of limiting visas for the dependants of international students, the Education Secretary conceded that, if such a policy was enacted, our ability

“to attract the best students from around the world is going to be reduced”.

This policy is now a reality. It is impacting on our emerging markets in Nigeria and India, and it will skew our market much further towards Chinese students. Does she stand by her initial remarks?

The visas that we were very keen should be available are the two-year graduate route visa, to make sure that all students coming here have two years in which to find a job before they can then apply for a work visa post their study period. That is a very competitive offer and I was very keen to ensure it was in place. We have looked at this very carefully but, as I said to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), we had an unprecedented increase—more than eightfold—in the number of dependants coming here and, bearing in mind our migration figures, we wanted to take action on that.

The eightfold increase happened because of the Secretary of State’s Government’s policies and the collapse of the European market—things that those on the Conservative Benches must be responsible for. The vast majority of international students are temporary visitors, yet they are counted as permanent in the migration figures—a policy the former Education Secretary, the right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), has called “bonkers”. A simple solution to halt the ongoing targeting of the students in this market would be to count only those who stay. Why is that not being considered?

The hon. Lady is right: the vast majority of international students return to their home countries once they have finished their studies. Home Office data show that less than 1% of those granted an initial study visa in 2016 had been granted settlement by 2021, but the Office for National Statistics is responsible for the migration figures.

School Buildings

Well-maintained, safe school buildings are essential. The Department has supported local authorities and academy trusts to keep their schools in good condition by providing over £15 billion in condition funding since 2015. Our school rebuilding programme will also transform buildings at 500 schools, prioritising those in the poorest condition.

I recently visited the Corbet School in my constituency, a small, rural, academy trust secondary school. It is very well run, but 25% of its teaching space is in old demountable buildings. How can small rural schools with only 750 pupils on the roll better access funding to improve the buildings the pupils are taught in, to give them the same opportunities as pupils in more urban areas?

We take into account the condition of any school’s buildings in the capital funding we give either to the local authority or to the trust or diocesan group, and it is up to those bodies to decide how best to distribute that funding to meet local needs. All schools, including rural schools, have the opportunity to be nominated for the latest round of the school rebuilding programme, which is rebuilding and refurbishing school buildings across the country.

It would be remiss of me not to thank the Department for the huge rebuilding programme it is undertaking, particularly in Rossendale—not least the brand-new school in Whitworth and huge investment in Haslingden High and All Saints’ schools. However, a school I was previously a governor at, the Valley Leadership Academy, which is part of the Star chain of academies, is suffering terribly from under-investment. The estate is not fit for purpose, and I hope that when the next round of funding happens, my right hon. Friend will look favourably on the Valley Leadership Academy, and also the other Star Academies schools which are delivering brilliant quality education against the state of their school buildings.

I take on board what my right hon. Friend is saying. The condition data collection is a thorough nationwide assessment of the condition of every school in the country, and that is the data on which decisions are based when deciding how to fund capital funding.

Many schools up and down the country still have asbestos in them and are getting to a dangerous state. It is all very well telling governing bodies to identify the asbestos, but there is not much incentive if there is no special or directed funding available to remove it and that is beyond the budget of an individual school. What is the Minister going to do to make sure asbestos is removed from our school buildings?

Asbestos management in school buildings is, as the hon. Lady will know, regulated by the Health and Safety Executive. The Department follows its advice and works closely with it. The DFE published detailed guidance on asbestos management for schools in 2020. When asbestos is a problem in a school, that is a major factor taken into account when deciding to rebuild schools under the school rebuilding programme.

Children and staff at Tipton St John Primary School had to be rescued by the fire service after it flooded recently. The safety of children and staff must come first as sites for a new school are assessed by the Department in the coming weeks. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss the urgent need to build a school in a safe location?

Yes, I will. I was sorry to hear about the flash flooding and its impact on the school and the local community. Tipton St John Primary School was selected in December for the school rebuilding programme, which will ensure a long-term solution for the school, protecting children and staff from flooding in the future. Officials are working with the diocese of Exeter, Devon County Council and my hon. Friend to identify and secure a new site for the school. I thank him for his support to help make that happen as quickly as possible.

Student Suicide Rate

14. What steps she plans to take with the higher education sector to reduce the suicide rate for students. (905316)

Preventing tragic deaths by suicide is a priority for the Government. Our approach to improving mental health outcomes and reducing suicides is focused on three pillars: funding and resourcing vital services; spreading and implementing best practice and clear responsibilities for higher education providers; and protection for students.

I have been contacted by many of my constituents in Broxtowe regarding a campaign to establish a duty of care for universities towards their students’ mental health. Suicide is currently the biggest killer of people under 35 in the UK. Will the Minister ensure that we are prioritising mental health support and lay out what the Department is doing to work with universities so that such help is provided? We must prioritise mental health, and we must do so now.

My hon. Friend is a huge champion of mental health in his constituency. Based on my previous answer to him, we are giving the Office for Students £15 million to help universities with mental health support. We have asked universities to sign up to the mental health charter by September 2024. We have a new student implementation taskforce to spread best practice, which is reporting on its first stage by the end of the year. We are also commissioning a national independent review of student suicides.

School Funding

We are committed to providing world-class schools. Total funding for both mainstream schools and special schools and alternative provision will total £58.8 billion by 2024-25: the highest ever level per pupil in real terms. That assessment has been confirmed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

Liam, a teacher in my constituency, described the Government’s pay offer as akin to

“a mouldy carrot dangled in front of us to lead us back to the despair of the classroom.”

He works in a school that has had to make redundancies due to insufficient budgets. Does the Minister understand the impact that Government cuts to school budgets are having on children’s futures? Can he honestly say that he is giving all children equal opportunities?

The hon. Member will have seen that, in recent international surveys, standards are rising in our schools. We increased school funding by £4 billion last year, and this year it has increased by £3.5 billion. Taken over those two years, that is a 15% increase in school funding. Those of us on the Government side of the House want to have a well rewarded, well motivated teaching profession, because that is how we will ensure that standards continue to rise in our schools.

Topical Questions

Teachers are the ultimate opportunity creators, giving all of us the tools we need to reach our potential. I am delighted that new data shows a record number of teachers joining the profession, so today we have over 468,000 teachers in our schools. That is a year-on-year increase of 2,800, meaning that there are over 27,000 more teachers in classrooms since we took office.

The difference that teachers make is almost impossible to measure, but there is no doubt about their commitment to delivering results. The number of schools rated good or outstanding has risen from 68% to 88% since 2010. We have climbed the international league tables in science, maths and English, most recently coming fourth in the world for reading at primary school age in the progress in international reading literacy study. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) for his relentless championing of phonics, helping our fantastic teachers to drive up standards. Ahead of Thank a Teacher Day, I want to say a massive thank you to teachers, early years professionals, teaching assistants and all who play their role in helping the next generation reach their potential.

The decision to make it harder for those on postgraduate courses to bring dependants will once again mean that Britain’s universities will be looking to China for international students. At a time of growing tension and concern about Chinese foreign policy, not least on the Secretary of State’s own Benches, is she confident that this is going to end well?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We discussed this a little earlier. There is a large and growing desire for the education that our top universities provide and there are many countries in the world where the middle class is developing, so there is a lot of opportunity for our universities as long as they keep on delivering their world-class fantastic quality.

T3. I welcome the relationships, sex and health education curriculum review. The Secretary of State herself has said that she shares concerns about inappropriate lessons being taught in schools. Can she reassure my Orpington constituents that the review will strengthen the ability of parents to view teaching materials, so that some teachers are no longer able to push unilaterally their own views on politics and gender to impressionable young people? (905327)

As my hon. Friend knows, the Secretary of State has written to all schools to emphasise that schools can and should share RSHE teaching materials with parents. The Department will consider, as part of the review of the statutory guidance, whether any further changes are needed to reinforce that and to ensure that all resources that teachers use to teach RSHE are age-appropriate.

Today’s announcement by Ofsted is a welcome recognition of the need for change, but it does not go far enough. Labour is the party of high and rising standards in our schools, which is why we would give parents a comprehensive picture of their children’s school in the form of an Ofsted report card, rather than a simplistic one-word judgment. Why is the Secretary of State content to sit back, rather than drive improvement in our schools?

The last time I was at the Dispatch Box, the hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) asked me to meet the family of Ruth Perry and members of the Caversham community following Ruth’s tragic death. I have been honoured to work with Ruth’s family and friends over the last few weeks. I take this matter incredibly seriously. Today, we announced that we are significantly expanding wellbeing support, in addition to announcements from Ofsted to improve the accountability system. Overall grades provide a clear and accessible summary of performance for parents, which is why the vast majority of parents—almost eight in 10—are aware of the Ofsted rating of their child’s school. I encourage parents to read the report narrative alongside the summary grade. The Ofsted grades also mean that we can highlight the success of schools, including the 88% of schools that are now good or outstanding—a much better record than any achieved by the hon. Lady’s Government.

T4.   I read with great interest that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) recently said in an interview in The Guardian that “the government could reduce the monthly repayments for every single new graduate without adding a penny to government borrowing or general taxation—Labour will not be increasing government spending on this.”That sounds too good to be true. As we on the Government Benches know, those on the Opposition Benches excel themselves on the subject of fairy-tale economics, so can I ask the Secretary of State— (905328)

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Has the Secretary of State made an assessment of the comments by the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, because to my ears they sound more fantasy than reality?

I thank my hon. Friend for her very insightful question. The Labour party’s proposals would, unfortunately, mean that graduates would live unhappily ever after. Either Labour would have graduates pay back their loans at a lower income threshold, impacting people just as they are taking their first steps on the career ladder, or it intends to make graduates pay back their loans well into retirement. That would, essentially, create a graduate tax. Yet again, this is the same old Labour—

Order. Please. Questions and answers have to be short and punchy. It may be a pre-arranged question and answer, but I am not going to have such long answers.

T2. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveals that, despite achieving the same level of qualification, the salaries of first-class female graduates were £2,000 lower than those of their male counterparts. What steps is the Minister taking to foster women’s workplace progression once they leave university? (905326)

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that male graduates earn more than £130,000 over their lifetime and female graduates £100,000, so graduates are coming out of university with good wages, and we know that more disadvantaged students are going to university than ever before.

T5. A number of smaller schools across my Colne Valley constituency have increasing numbers of SEND students. What can the Department do to cajole Labour-run Kirklees Council to deliver timely education, health and care plans and ensure that it is delivering the financial support for the extra educational assistance that these children need? (905329)

The work of teaching assistants is incredibly important to the SEND arena. We have taken education funding to real-term historic highs for mainstream education and we have increased the high-needs block by more than 50%.

T6. Principals of sixth-form colleges across the country, such as Yolanda Botham at the excellent Long Road College in Cambridge, are warning that the Government’s continuing plans to scrap many of the BTEC qualifications risk real harm to their students. Will the Government listen to those people and to the Sixth Form Colleges Association and protect student choice? (905330)

Just to be clear on BTECs, many BTECs will remain and people will be able to do them with A-levels. We are getting rid of BTECs that either have low outcomes, significantly overlap with the T-level, or have very low uptake. We have also introduced the T-level transition year so that people who want to prepare for T-levels are able to do so.

T7. Few Members have done more to support and drive up the standards of apprenticeships than my right hon. Friend, the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education. The hospitality sector is keen to continue to work with him and the Department in order to bring people into apprenticeships and to drive up the standards further. People in the sector believe that they can achieve more with some elements of flexibility and by continually evolving the policy. Is my right hon. Friend prepared to engage with the sector in order to see how we can work with it? (905332)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks. We have already introduced flexibilities with the apprenticeship levy. As I know how deeply concerned he is about the hospitality industry, I can tell him that I have visited Greene King and seen how brilliantly it uses the levy to employ hundreds of apprentices. Of course, where we can, we will work to ensure that this carries on across the hospitality industry, which he so ably represents.

Last year, a survey by the National Union of Students found that the mental health of 90% of students had been negatively impacted by the rising cost of living, with students worrying about paying bills and paying for food. The Government have been failing students so far, so what will the Minister do about it?

The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that we increased the grant to the Office for Students by £50 million to £276 million. That grant goes to help disadvantaged students. We increased the maintenance loan and grant by 2.8%. We have energy rebates for students who live in private accommodation as well. We are doing everything possible to help students with the cost of living, but being fair to the taxpayer as well.

T8. I applaud the Government’s commitment to recruiting record numbers of teachers and the fact that there are 27,000 more now in our classrooms than in 2010. I recently met all of Southend’s secondary heads. Their concern was retention, but they had a number of interesting and innovative ideas. Will the Secretary of State meet me and them to discuss those ideas? Perhaps, when she visits our local employer, Adventure Island, she could make it a whole team awayday. (905333)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will visit, but if she cannot then I certainly will. Teacher retention is key to ensuring effective teacher supply and quality. We are taking action to support teachers so that they can stay in the profession and succeed. The Department has published a range of resources to help schools address teacher workload issues, prioritise staff wellbeing and introduce flexible working.

Despite the introduction of my private Member’s Bill to help reduce the cost of school uniforms, which is now law, far too many schools still require a plethora of branding and logos. What will Ministers do to ensure that those schools apply the law?

It was a pleasure to work with the hon. Member on that important legislation to put the guidance on the cost of school uniform into statutory form. I congratulate him on the Act. Ultimately, these are matters for headteachers but the guidance is there, and if parents are concerned that schools are not abiding by the guidance, each one has a formal complaints procedure.

I often hear from parents whose children remain in mainstream education despite their school not being able to meet the child's special educational needs. Despite Rugby having received some additional SEN places recently, I have had such an email from a constituent in the last few hours. What is being done to make certain that more such spaces are made available?

We have set out ambitious reforms to give parents greater confidence that their child’s needs can be met in mainstream provision. When they need specialist support, we are building many more special and alternative provision free schools—127 so far since 2010, with 67 in the pipeline.

Freedom of information requests from the Liberal Democrats recently revealed that three in four primary schools will not have a mental health support team in place by 2024, when the funding runs out. Officials have suggested to MPs that hard-pressed NHS budgets could be squeezed to fund those schemes further. Will the Minister please commit to prioritising this area and committing new cash? If not, will she put a counsellor in every school?

We take this issue incredibly seriously, which is why we are rolling out mental health support teams. We are ahead of schedule, with 35% of pupils covered this year and another 100 teams on the way to cover 44% of pupils next year, alongside other proposals.

If and when parents get sight of what their children are being taught about relationships and sex education, will they have the right to withdraw their children from such lessons if they deem the materials to be inappropriate?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point about the appropriateness of materials being used in schools to teach relationships, health and sex education. We have been concerned about reports on that, which is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to all schools to remind them of their duty to share teaching materials with parents, and why we brought forward the review of the RHSE guidance. There is no right to withdraw children from relationships education, but there is a right for parents to withdraw their children from sex education in the RHSE curriculum.

Since 1985, girls and boys from nursery age to right up to pre-university have been educated at the King Fahad Academy in East Acton. Imagine the shock of parents, pupils and staff to be told last month that none of them are coming back in September because the Saudi Government, who fund it, are pulling the plug. Could the Secretary of State urgently intervene, at least to provide some basic certainty to a stunned community? Even the road layouts around there were conceived around the school. It could mean 500 kids left in the lurch after summer.

I have constituents who have been studying at the University of Lincoln for the last three years, but the classification of their degree and their graduation are being prevented because lecturers who are union members are boycotting marking their final dissertations. Can my right hon. Friend advise me and my constituents of what they should do to push through and get the qualifications that they have worked so hard for?

My hon. Friend is right that students should get their papers marked. I have been discussing these issues with Universities UK, which says that they will affect a minority of students, and a lot of universities are ensuring alternative markers. Students have recourse to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator if they feel they are not getting the service that they have paid for with their student loan.

On Saturday, I attended an inspiring conference hosted by Bootham Quaker School, where about 120 year 12 students from across the world had come together to determine the purpose and future of education. Does the Secretary of State agree with them that we need a renewed vision for education, taking into account what education achieves for communities, countries and the planet we share, rather than just its personal benefits?

The hon. Lady raises a number of important points. First, sustainability is an important part of the curriculum. Secondly, we want our young people to be able to succeed. In a global jobs market—a global trading market—they need to have the best education possible. Our schools are rising in the international league tables for maths and reading standards in PISA, PIRLS and TIMMS—the programme for international student assessment, the programme in international reading literacy study and the trends in international mathematics and science study.

I met a group of headteachers in Chandler’s Ford, in my constituency, on Friday, and it is clear that they feel they are currently subsidising the surplus in places from falling school rolls, and particularly in universal infant free school meals. The Minister and I discussed this in my recent Westminster Hall debate, and he said he was “actively looking” at the issue. Since then, the Hampshire school meals provider has put up the price again. Will the Minister give me an update?

I am happy to discuss this further with my hon. Friend. As I said in the Westminster Hall debate, we have been looking at this issue carefully and have increased the price per pupil of the universal infant free school meal, backdated to April. We understand the cost pressures that schools and suppliers of catering to schools are facing because of higher food prices.

The Glasgow science festival has just completed its 17th year communicating research and inspiring young people, and older people, in venues across Glasgow. Will the Minister congratulate Dr Deborah McNeil for her work in promoting this brilliant festival? It is an example of how young people and academics in science can be brought together.

I am delighted to congratulate the science festival and the individual the hon. Lady mentions. We need more such science festivals across the United Kingdom; I would be very interested to learn more about that science festival and how we can spread such festivals across our country.

Improving educational outcomes in places like Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke relies on retaining the skills of highly qualified teachers. One way we can go about doing that is by changing levelling-up bonus payments in education investment areas, so that money can be given to teachers regardless of how many years of service they have. Will the Minister consider that action?

Having served as Schools Minister at the Department for Education for a period of time, my hon. Friend will be aware that we have levelling-up premium payments for teachers to teach maths, physics and computer science in disadvantaged schools, in order to encourage teachers in those subjects into the schools that need them the most.