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Education and Training (Welfare of Children) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:52 pm on 13th March 2020.

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Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 1:52 pm, 13th March 2020

I thank Mary Kelly Foy for introducing this important Bill. This is a subject that clearly many of us feel passionately about, particularly the need to safeguard children from many types of harm, including online harm and harm that affects their mental health, such as bullying. I know she has a long-standing interest in this area, and in particular in people’s health and wellbeing.

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions to today’s debate. Safeguarding of children is one issue that I think all Members agree is extremely important. The Government take it very seriously, which is why we support the Bill. Young people, especially those in their mid to late teens, can be particularly vulnerable. They are in that transitional phase—they are growing up and starting to become more independent, but they are still children in many ways. I am sure many hon. Members will recognise that from their own experience, while others may still have the joy of teenagers to come. It is a difficult time in a young person’s life, and the education landscape is suddenly becoming a lot more complex, with many more different options and important choices to make, which will have an impact on their lives and careers.

The Bill has been described as a technical change to place all Government-funded post-16 providers of education and training on the same statutory footing. As many hon. Members have highlighted, that is important. Whether studying A-levels, T-levels, an apprenticeship or other qualifications in a school, college, sixth-form college, 16-to-19 academy, specialist post-16 institute or independent learning provider, it is important that students are safe and that the institution they are in has responsibility for their safeguarding.

Such institutions do have responsibility for safeguarding today, but rather than being buried in contract conditions or other conditions such as Ofsted requirements, having a single statutory guidance note will make it clear and transparent to all what is expected. That is important for parents, students, providers and bodies such as Ofsted. Parents and students in particular should be reassured by the underlying principle of “Keeping Children Safe in Education”. All practitioners must ensure that their approach is child-centred. It means that they should consider at all times what is in the best interests of the child. Safeguarding covers all forms of harm. It covers abuse, whether mental, physical, sexual or online. It covers bullying in all forms. It covers child exploitation, county lines, female genital mutilation and neglect. The “Keeping Children Safe in Education” guidance covers all those areas and more, not only in terms of what providers need to do, but, critically, where extra advice and help can be found. Having one single approach to safeguarding will, I believe, help all providers to know their obligations and where they can get advice to help them to safeguard children.

This debate has shown how strongly we feel about the need to safeguard children. In the interests of time I will not cover all the issues raised, but I would like to reassure my hon. Friend Neil O'Brien, who raised the academisation of faith schools. It is our ultimate ambition that every school that wants it should have the opportunity to benefit from the autonomy and freedom that academy status can provide. Going forward, we will continue to look for a suitable opportunity to address this issue and level up the playing field.

I want to make three clear points. First, every provider already has some form of requirement on safeguarding. In simplifying the landscape, I agree that the Bill will not place any additional costs or administrative burdens on providers. In fact, it may help them, because it will make it simpler and clearer to understand. Secondly, I feel strongly that the provisions will result in a levelling up of safeguarding, making it clearer for all concerned, whether they are a parent, student or a provider, and ensuring that the guidance remains relevant and up to date in a timely manner. Finally, the Bill will result in the need to amend the statutory guidance note “Keeping Children Safe in Education”. We will consult openly and widely with the sector to ensure that the guidance is both appropriate and proportionate.

In closing, I reiterate my thanks to the hon. Member for City of Durham for bringing the Bill before the House. I congratulate her, as a new Member, on driving forward these important proposals so early in her career. I am sure we will hear a lot more from her. I look forward to visiting the outstanding New College Durham. I thank her again and confirm that the Government will support the Bill.