Topical Questions

Education – in the House of Commons at on 23 October 2023.

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Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

Mr Speaker, I stand with this House in condemning the barbaric terrorist attacks on Israel. The brutal actions of Hamas have sent shockwaves that have reverberated all the way to our shores. My ministerial team and I recently met leaders from the Jewish education community. I was deeply moved by the experiences that they shared but horrified by the rise in antisemitism that they faced. That is totally unacceptable. All students deserve to learn without fear or harassment.

Disturbingly, I have also seen evidence of students and academics appearing to support Hamas. Let me be crystal clear: Hamas is a terrorist organisation and supporting it is a criminal act. The Government will take action against those who do. With my Ministers, I have written to schools, colleges and universities, reminding them of their duties under Prevent and that incidents of antisemitism will not be tolerated. We teach our children the British values of liberty, mutual respect and tolerance. This Government will always stand by those values.

Photo of David Evennett David Evennett Conservative, Bexleyheath and Crayford

I join my right hon. Friend in the comments that she has just made.

Strike action in schools has caused significant disruption to children and parents in my constituency and resulted in the loss of some 25 million school days across the country. I welcome the part that my right hon. Friend played in bringing the dispute to an end, with the largest pay award for teachers in 30 years. However, what further steps is she taking to protect children from the impact of future strike action?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

My right hon. Friend is correct: it is unacceptable that the disruption caused over 10 days of strike action saw millions of school days lost. That is why the Government are introducing minimum service levels in schools and colleges, to protect children and parents from the damaging impact of future strike action. We must find a balance between teachers’ right to strike and protecting children’s education. In the first instance, we have asked unions to work with us on a voluntary agreement.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

I join the Secretary of State in recognising the impact of the conflict in the middle east on our education system here and the importance of every child being able to attend school safely.

Rates of persistent absence are now double what they were five years ago. Labour’s plan starts with resetting the relationship between families and schools, delivering new mental health hubs, and having counsellors in every secondary school and breakfast clubs for every primary school child. The Prime Minister’s first step was to say that he had maxed out on supporting our children, and now the Secretary of State is blaming parents for keeping children at home with a cold. When are Ministers going to get a grip on this serious problem?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

We do take this issue extremely seriously; as I said, it is my No. 1 priority. The Attendance Action Alliance includes the Children’s Commissioner, Department of Health and Social Care representatives, social workers and many others working together. The letter was sent to help parents because we have noticed that in some cases there has been a change in attendance as a result of parents not being clear about whether they should send their children to school with minor ailments. Chris Whitty took it upon himself to write, and we very much support his action.

Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Secretary of State for Education

Persistent absence is a symptom of a wider breakdown of trust right across our school system. It is no surprise, given that the Conservatives reopened pubs before they reopened schools, that they have left schools to crumble, and that they have allowed disruptive strike action to drag on for months. Labour’s first priority will be to rebuild that relationship between schools, families and Government. Does the Secretary of State not believe that parents and children deserve a lot better than the sorry mess she is presiding over today?

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education

The hon. Lady talks about responsibility and accountability. When Labour were warned about RAAC—reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete—in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2007, they did nothing. When Labour spent money on school rebuilding, they ignored school conditions altogether. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady needs to listen to this. They even rebuilt three schools and left RAAC within the buildings. A school even collapsed in 2018. What did they do in Wales? Absolutely nothing. We make the tough decisions. Labour cannot even make a single decision.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

In the wake of the massacre that occurred in Israel—the greatest loss of life since the holocaust—cases of antisemitism in this country have risen by 582%, and Jewish students on our campuses feel very unsafe. Glorification of this massacre has been carried out at Warwick University, Bristol University, University College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies. It is unacceptable for universities to tolerate such activity, so will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning antisemitism and state what she will do to ensure that Jewish students feel safe on campus and can study like every other British citizen?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Education)

Sadly, there are a number of Hamas’s useful idiots—a fifth column—across some of our universities. The Secretary of State has said that she will not stand for it; the Home Secretary will not stand for it. We have written to universities. This is absolutely unacceptable; we expect our universities to be safe places for all Jewish students.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

If the pay offer for teachers in England had matched the award for teachers in Scotland, the Secretary of State would have averted the current strike action. Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, has said that minimum service levels for teachers are

“nothing short of an overtly hostile act from the Government and an attack on the basic democratic freedoms of school leaders and teachers.”

Will the Secretary of State explain how she expects to tackle the staffing crisis in teaching when she goes out of her way to alienate the profession?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

We have a record number of teachers in schools in England: 468,000. That is 27,000 more teachers today than in 2010. We accepted the recommendations of the School Teachers’ Review Body for a 6.5% pay rise—the highest in 30 years —for teachers and headteachers in our school system.

Photo of Kate Kniveton Kate Kniveton Conservative, Burton

Like all county councils, Staffordshire County Council is struggling with the rising demand for special educational needs and disabilities support in schools, and with lengthy delays in issuing education, health and care plans. That is leaving children and families with a lack of vital support and appropriate education for their needs. What steps are the Government taking to tackle the shortage of educational psychologists and to ensure that children receive the education that they need to achieve good outcomes?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of educational psychologists. We are investing £21 million to train 400 more educational psychologists, building on the £10 million already announced to train more than 200 from this term.

Photo of Sarah Green Sarah Green Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales)

The Department for Education has stated that

“Where responsible bodies discover lead piping, they must take action”.

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether those bodies are asked to look proactively for lead piping? What action are they asked to take if any is found?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Schools must have suitable drinking water facilities. Where responsible bodies, such as local authorities or academy trusts, discover lead piping in a school, they must take action, working as appropriate with water companies. Capital funding allocated to schools each year can be used to fund the removal of pipe work if required, but when a school has a particular concern, it can contact the Department for assistance.

Photo of Flick Drummond Flick Drummond Conservative, Meon Valley

I welcome the idea of the advanced British standard assessment, although the name is unwieldy—acronyms are used elsewhere—and difficult to export. That aside, has there been any more exploration of what the curriculum would look like and of how many years young people would need to study for the qualification? Does it mean the end of GCSEs?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

No, it does not. The advanced British standard will offer a broad, balanced and knowledge-rich curriculum that builds on reforms of the last decade. Its curriculum will form a core part of the formal consultation in the coming months. GCSEs remain important, rigorous and highly regarded qualifications, providing preparation for the new advanced British standard.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

When does the Minister anticipate that it might be possible to deliver at least half of all education, health and care plans for SEND children within the Government’s own legal timeframe?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We are undertaking a significant programme of reform to ensure not only that EHCPs are delivered in the right timeframe but that children get the support they need at an earlier stage without needing one.

Photo of James Daly James Daly Conservative, Bury North

Will my right hon. Friend outline the support provided to the Metropolitan Borough of Bury by the Government to enhance educational provision for children with special educational needs?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

The Metropolitan Borough of Bury is getting significant support. In addition to the funding increases, we have appointed a SEND adviser to work with the borough to improve services. The Council for Disabled Children is supporting it to strengthen EHCPs. Two special free schools have been approved, and Bury is also one of 34 areas in our safety valve programme.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Social Care)

In recent weeks, we have seen reported instances of antisemitism rise by 1,300% and Islamophobia by 150%, with Jewish kids afraid to go to school and Muslim kids asked, “Whose side are you on?” What are the Government doing to ensure that children are taught sensitively but robustly about the wrongs of such intolerance, and does Ofsted have a role in ensuring consistency of approach in all schools?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

The hon. Member is absolutely right: antisemitism has no place in education. It was an honour to join the Secretary of State’s visit to Menorah High School last week, together with the whole ministerial team, standing in solidarity with that school and with the Jewish community. We have written to all schools and colleges urging a swift response to hate-related incidents and active reassurance for their students and staff, and we continue to work with faith leaders, schools and Ofsted to monitor the response to those concerns.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), since Hamas’s attack, Jewish students on campus report that they have had a year’s worth of antisemitic incidents in only two weeks. Some have been targeted, the attack itself was celebrated, and some have received death threats. As such, does the Minister agree that universities should work with the Union of Jewish Students to publicise the welfare hotline that it has established; avail themselves of the training that the UJS offers; and work to implement the recommendations of the recent report of the taskforce on antisemitism in higher education?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Education)

I have made it clear that we will not tolerate antisemitism on campus. We are working closely with the Union of Jewish Students and the higher education Jewish chaplaincy service, as well as the Community Security Trust. I welcome the taskforce’s report and its recommendations, and we absolutely urge universities to prioritise the implementation of that report.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Having recently visited a local nursery in Birdwell, I know that its staff are very concerned about their ability to plan for provision for children in the year 2024-25. When will the Government give them certainty on hourly rates?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

We will be setting out the funding rates very shortly.

Photo of Antony Higginbotham Antony Higginbotham Conservative, Burnley

One day after Hamas’s brutal massacre in Israel, a student at the University of Manchester spoke of being full of “pride and joy” at a once-in-a-lifetime experience—not only a disgusting comment but one that points to possible extremism in our university campuses. Far too many think that there are no consequences for spreading such hate in our educational settings, so will my right hon. Friend set out what the real consequences are?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Minister of State (Education)

I mentioned previously that unfortunately, we have some of Hamas’s useful idiots across our campuses, and we will not stand for it—they represent a fifth column supporting terrorism. We are doing everything possible. The Prevent duty requires higher education providers to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, and we will work with the universities to ensure that they take any extremist activity very seriously.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

James, a 14-year-old lad from my constituency, has been passed from pillar to post by schools that simply cannot deal with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism. Will the Minister meet me on that specific case?

Photo of David Johnston David Johnston The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I would be delighted to meet with the hon. Gentleman.