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Topical Questions

Volume 744: debated on Monday 29 January 2024

As was mentioned by the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), next week is National Apprenticeship Week. When I did my apprenticeship I benefited from brilliant training and opportunities, thanks to General Motors, which got me where I am today, and I want to spread those opportunities to everyone, everywhere.

This Conservative Government have built a new high-quality apprenticeship system from the ground up. Nearly 70% of occupations are now accessible via apprenticeships, and we have delivered 5.7 million apprenticeship starts since 2010. A week from today, we will kick off National Apprenticeship Week. I ask all Members to go on a visit to meet apprentices and talk about the opportunities that are available throughout the country—a real example of levelling up. All my Ministers and I will be out, across the country, celebrating different industries and providers, and with hundreds of apprentices. This is why Labour’s policy to halve the number of apprenticeships is so dangerous: it would remove opportunities from people like me, taking us back to square one.

I look forward to Fact Check’s assessment of the Secretary of State’s comments. Given that 2,730 children in Hull are waiting more than 12 weeks for their first mental health appointment, is it pride or inattentiveness that prevents the Secretary of State from adopting Labour’s plan for a mental health professional in every school?

If I may “fact check” the hon. Lady, I think that the plan is for a mental health professional in every secondary school. The plan that we have is to introduce mental health support teams in every primary and secondary school. As usual, our plans, on which we are delivering, are better thought through, cover more people, and solve the problem that they are intended to solve.

T2. Very welcome remediation work on reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—RAAC—is now under way at Kingsdown School in Leigh-on-Sea, meaning that parts of the school will be open from half term. However, the school has still not had confirmation, given the extent of the RAAC, on whether there will be a rebuild of the school. This uncertainty is affecting remediation, expansion and recruitment plans. Please could we have that confirmation for the school as soon as possible? (901209)

I know that my hon. Friend has campaigned tirelessly for Kingsdown School. Our questionnaire programme is 100% complete, all schools have been told if it is suspected that they might have RAAC and 100% of those have been surveyed. I can confirm we will be removing RAAC from our schools for good, either through the school rebuilding programme or through grant funding, and we will inform schools shortly, once our assessments have concluded. I know that my hon. Friend has met Baroness Barran to discuss Kingsdown School and is meeting again this week.

Students at St Leonard’s School in Durham are working hard for their exams, but they are facing sustained and ongoing disruption, including challenges to doing practical coursework, off-site teaching and being bussed around the city, all because of RAAC. There is no firm date for the rebuilding to commence, and that is just not good enough. It is putting young people’s futures at risk. Will the Secretary of State now work with the regulator and the exam boards on mitigations for the small number of young people whose life chances are being put at risk by Government failure?

As the hon. Lady knows, we have been working closely with St Leonard’s School, and actually with all schools that were impacted by RAAC. I would like to take this moment to thank the headteachers and all the teachers who have done an amazing job to keep 100% of children in face-to-face education. We have spoken to the award bodies. They have been working with schools and have offered some support in terms of assessments and making sure that they can look at what more needs to be done, but exams are there to assess—

Order. We are having this problem every time. Topicals are meant to be short and punchy. I have to get all these Members in, but all you are doing is stopping them getting in. If that is the ploy, it is not going to work.

T6. My right hon. Friend has already mentioned the article in The Sunday Times, but is she aware that it is comparing apples and oranges? British students go straight into a degree course in the first year, but these overseas students referred to are foundation year students who are not on the degree course. They are doing the equivalent of A-level exams. (901213)

Of course I agree that, on entry requirements, we should ensure that we are comparing like for like and being fair to our brilliant domestic students. I was appalled to see the reporting over the weekend, which clearly showed bad practice in the use of agents. That is not acceptable. As I have said, I met Universities UK and the vice-chancellors yesterday and we are going to sort this out. There is an investigation by the Department for Education.

“It’s not our fault” always seems to be this Government’s catchphrase, and now it applies to childcare too: it is not the Secretary of State’s fault but that of local authorities; it is not her responsibility to deliver on her Government’s own pledge. Even her own civil servants are saying that some parents just will not get their places. Does she agree with the Children’s Minister that no parents will lose out? Will she give that guarantee to the House today—yes or no?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has asked about childcare, because it is yet another illustration of how this Conservative Government are delivering for working parents while the Labour party still does not have a plan. I know what it takes to deliver complex projects. I have delivered many over three decades working in industry all around the world. Given the hon. Lady’s limited experience outside politics, she should focus on not playing party politics and deliver for hard-working parents.

T7.   Educational psychologists are enormously important. What progress are the Government making on their current recruitment drive to increase their number? (901214)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a highly competitive training scheme. Between 2017 and 2019 the Department filled all 160 of its funded training places per year, and since 2020 it has filled all 200 of the funded places each year. We have now committed to training a further 400 educational psychologists.[Official Report, 8 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 6MC.] (Correction)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that we need highly qualified, excellent teachers in every school? Is she worried, as I am, that so many highly qualified, gifted teachers are leaving the profession after just a few years?

Of course I agree, which is why I am delighted that we have 27,000 more teachers in our schools than we had in 2010. We have a retention and recruitment plan with many different facets to make sure that we retain our excellent teachers.

T10. Working with one of my secondary schools, John Whitgift Academy, we have created a pilot scheme called “Opportunity Grimsby”, in which year 8 students and their parents are linked with local businesses. That will form part of a scheme in which the student is a workplace mentee until year 11. Will my right hon. Friend commit to coming to Grimsby to see how well the scheme is doing? (901217)

I would be delighted to come to Grimsby. I congratulate my hon. Friend on becoming the apprenticeship diversity champion. She is a skills champion, and what she is doing on careers and mentoring in Grimsby is a model example of what should be done across the country.

T4. This month’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report sets out how childhood poverty impacts on educational attainment, and how the consequences last a lifetime, entrenching intergenerational poverty. Forty-two per cent of children in Newcastle are growing up in poverty. Will the Secretary of State support Labour’s call for free breakfast clubs in every primary school, to give those children the best start in life? (901211)

We are investing very heavily in breakfast clubs. This is another area in which we think that targeting support matters. That includes secondary schools, not just primary schools, as the Labour party suggests.

Is it not a disgrace that young children are told to cover up their badges so that people do not know which school they attend, and are told to remove outward signs that they are Jewish? Security is provided once they get to school, but what will my right hon. Friend do to make sure that children are educated on the evils of antisemitism, so that we spread this message across all schools, rather than just Jewish schools?

My hon. Friend is right. After Holocaust Memorial Day, we are acutely conscious of the continuing need to act against antisemitism. One of the things we are doing is launching a new fund for both schools and higher education, to try to address antisemitism effectively at its root.

T5. Each year, students have to apply for the Turing international mobility scheme before the Easter deadline, but those from widening participation backgrounds need to know that they have the money before they apply, and universities are getting confirmation of funding some months later, in June and July. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that Turing should be open to all, so will she press Treasury colleagues for a multi-year funding settlement? (901212)

I have enormous respect for the hon. Gentleman, and I listen carefully to what he says. We are working to smooth out any issues with the Turing scheme. However, it is worth noting that we have increased the proportion of disadvantaged students taking part in it from 50% to 60%. I am proud that we are embedding social justice in the scheme.

Will students affected by RAAC, such as those at Thornleigh Salesian College in Bolton, receive special dispensation in their GCSEs and A-levels? I recently met the college’s exceptional headteacher, Mrs O’Callaghan, and I take this opportunity to wish her all the best on her well deserved retirement at the end of the year.

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating, commending and thanking Mrs O’Callaghan on her life’s work. I appreciate that the RAAC situation in schools has been very difficult, which is why we are trying to work with them on things like coursework assessment. They should be in touch with awarding bodies. We are also making sure that we reimburse all reasonable revenue costs.

T8. I recently met headteachers in West Derby, who shared with me their serious concerns that the current Ofsted inspection model is not fit for purpose, is deeply unfair and is driving teachers out of a profession they love. In the light of today’s Education Committee report, will the Secretary of State meet me and the experienced educators in Liverpool, West Derby, to discuss their concerns and what they feel needs to change? (901215)

I pay tribute to the headteachers in Liverpool, West Derby. We think it is important to have an independent inspectorate, and we think it is important that assessments are clear. In the wake of the tragedy of Ruth Perry, it is right that we think about all the aspects, some of which have already changed. To be clear, we think it continues to be important that there be a clear external assessment for parents.

Families across Tipton and Wednesbury are still struggling to get an initial assessment for children with SEND. What work is my right hon. Friend doing to hold organisations such as child and adolescent mental health services to account, so that we ensure that these assessments are done quickly?

My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We are working with all local authorities, through our SEND and alternative provision improvement plan, to make sure that assessments happen a lot quicker, and that children get the support they need.

T9.     School exclusions and suspensions are on the rise. Children who have experienced trauma are at the greatest risk of exclusion, which only adds to the overall negative outcome for children with adverse childhood experiences, yet the Department’s behaviour guidance makes no reference to childhood trauma. Will the Minister meet the all-party group on childhood trauma to discuss how we can develop better guidance to take account of childhood trauma? (901216)

We want to see schools not excluding children where that is at all possible. There is no right number for exclusions; they have to be determined in the light of the circumstances at the school, but we expect people to look at the matter as a whole. I will, of course, be happy to talk to the hon. Lady.

I thank the Secretary of State for her earlier answers about RAAC. Will she give priority for a complete rebuild to St Edward’s Catholic Academy in my constituency, following the adjudication that more than 80% of it is affected by RAAC? Can the plans start very soon, please?

Yes, I can give an assurance that we are going through all the details and assessing each instance on a case-by-case basis. I know that all hon. Members are keen to know what will happen, and they will have the answers very shortly.

The changes in the visa rules for international students and their dependants are having a significant impact, not only on the number of students coming to universities such as the University of York, a Russell Group university, but on these universities’ finances. Universities will have to make significant cuts if this visa programme reaches fruition. Will the Minister meet vice-chancellors and the Home Office, together, to talk about the impact this is having?

We have regular conversations with vice-chancellors and the Home Office on this issue. However, as I say, our target has been more than 600,000 students and we have well surpassed that, and 36% of university researchers come from outside the UK. We have a proud record on international students and that will continue.

St Peter’s Church of England Primary School in Budleigh Salterton is an excellent school, but it is being let down by temporary classrooms that are way past their best. Temporary classrooms should be just that: temporary, not a permanent solution. Further to my letter, which is winding its way through the Department, will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss this matter further?

Children’s services are struggling, and in too many parts of England, outcomes for children are just not good enough. What conversations has the children’s Minister had with those in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about both resources and capacity for children’s services? What measures will he take where councils underperform, and thus let children down?

We have very regular conversations with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on that issue, as part of our “Stable homes, built on love” reforms to transform the children’s social care system, and we take strict action where local authorities are not meeting the requirements.

Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council is, bizarrely, taking parents to court to challenge their legal right to secure special educational support for their children. With the council losing 90% of those cases and this costing £100,000 every three months, will the Secretary of State join me in asking the council to think again? Will she agree to meet me to discuss special educational needs provision for Bournemouth?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. We are concerned by any local authority spending too much money taking parents to court. Children need to get the right support, in the right setting, at the right time, and I would be happy to have a discussion with him about that.