School Attendance (Duties of Local Authorities and Proprietors of Schools) Bill

Robin Walker Excerpts
Wednesday 1st May 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Vickers. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for serving on the Committee. Before going into the detail of the Bill, I will say some thank yous. I thank the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire, for his tireless support and for coming to Chelmsford to visit The Boswells School and hear directly from staff and students. I also thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for ensuring that there is cross-party support for the Bill. At a time when politicians always seem to be arguing with each other, it is great to know that there is actually unanimous support when it comes to looking after our children and ensuring that they go to school.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and members of the Select Committee on Education, as well as the Children’s Commissioner, school heads, children’s and mental health charities and local authority attendance teams, all of whom gave their views, shared their expert experience and supported the measures in the Bill. I also thank the officials in the Department for Education, Anne-Marie Griffiths in the Public Bill Office, and the Clerk, Bethan Harding, as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris)—what would Fridays be without Rebecca?—for all the support I have received up to this point. I also thank Sarah from my office. Today is a busy day in politics, so a huge thank you to all MPs for taking the time and trouble to be here today. Every one of them is here because they care about children.

I will not repeat everything that I said on Second Reading, but I will repeat this: education is key to a child’s future, and for most children school is the best place to be. This is a subject close to my heart, because I want every child to be able to achieve their potential. I want young people to have opportunities. I want them to be able to choose what they do in their future and to have a wide range of choices about whether to continue studying after school and if so, what to study. I want them to have a choice about what jobs or careers they go into.

However, attending school regularly is crucial in giving children those choices. Our children can achieve brilliant things: educational standards have come on in leaps and bounds over the past decade, with children now ranking 11th in the world for maths and 13th for reading. We should be so very proud of our nation’s young people. That is phenomenal progress and we must not let it slip. However, the pandemic has significantly disrupted school attendance levels not just here, but in many countries across the world, with more than one in five pupils in England still missing out on the equivalent of half a day or more of lessons a week. That means that more than 1 million pupils are missing out on significant amounts of their education. It reduces their chances of getting good grades, limits the choices available to them for their future and risks impacting on their longer-term life chances. It also affects their friendships and their chance to take part in enrichment activities, which are so important to their wider wellbeing.

A great deal of work has been done to improve school attendance already. There was the in-depth consultation by the Department for Education, which led to detailed guidance on school attendance being published two years ago, in May 2022. Since presenting the Bill, the Government have already published an updated version of the guidance, which in particular sets out more detail on mental health support and meeting special educational needs. Since Second Reading, the Minister has announced that the guidance will become statutory from 19 August, and I thank him for doing so. Making the guidance statutory is supported by the Children’s Commissioner and the Centre for Social Justice, as well as the Education Committee and many other experts. However, this legislation is still needed, and I welcome the Government’s and Opposition’s support for the Bill. It is a simple but crucial piece of legislation—just two main clauses.

The first clause will place a general duty on local authorities to exercise their functions with a view to promoting regular attendance and reducing absence in their areas. That will help reduce unfairness in the amount of support available for families between areas of the country and level up standards in areas with poorer attendance by providing a consistent approach to support. Local authorities should follow a “support first” approach.

The second clause will help to ensure that schools play their part by requiring them to have a detailed attendance policy. They will be required to publicise that policy so that all parents, pupils and those who work at the school are well aware of its contents. Legally that is achieved by inserting two clauses into the Education Act 1996. Both clauses will require all schools and local authorities to have regard to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

Local authorities will need to provide all schools with a named point of contact to support queries and advice, meet each school termly to discuss cases where multi-agency support is needed, and work with other agencies to provide support where it is needed in cases of persistent or severe absence. Schools will need to have a named attendance champion and robust day-to-day processes for recording, monitoring and following up on absences. They will need to use their attendance data to follow up with pupils who are persistently and severely absent.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for taking forward this Bill. As she knows, the Select Committee on Education has long recommended action in this space. Was she as struck as I was by the evidence given yesterday to the Select Committee by Annie Hudson, the chair of the child safeguarding review panel, about the proportion of the cases that she deals with—the most serious cases of things going wrong for children—where children are persistently or severely absent?

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford
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As ever, my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee makes an excellent point. Attending school is really important for safeguarding; we hear that again and again. Children who do not attend school are unfortunately much more likely to get drawn into gangs and much more likely to be victims of violence. Attendance has an important protective factor.

Importantly, students and their families will be aware of a school’s attendance policy before they choose their secondary school. Because children often have that choice about which secondary school they go to, they will know what the school expects of them in respect of turning up.

In addressing the issue of school attendance, however, it is really important that we do not simply lay the blame at the door of hard-working parents. The vast majority of parents want their children to do well, but many do not have the help that they need to support their children in fulfilling those aspirations. Some children face specific barriers to school attendance, such as issues with transport or ensuring that a child’s special educational needs are met. That is why the guidance places a great deal of emphasis on early help and multidisciplinary support.

Schools and local authorities will need to work together. Local authorities will need to help schools to remove those barriers to attendance.

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Damian Hinds Portrait The Minister for Schools (Damian Hinds)
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It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Vickers. I want to join colleagues in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford on introducing the Bill and her work in getting it to this stage. She brought to the process not only her commitment and passion but a number of unique insights. It was a pleasure to join her in visiting The Boswells School when I came to Chelmsford, and it has been a pleasure working with her on the Bill. This topic is clearly of the highest importance to her, as I know it is to Members of this Committee and to the Government.

It was clear on Second Reading that right across the House there is a shared recognition of the value of regular school attendance for attainment, wellbeing and development. Put simply, none of the other brilliant parts of school—whether that is phonics, maths mastery, two hours a week of sport, being with friends or taking part in the school play—can have a benefit if children are not there for them. This issue is of highest priority for us. I am pleased to see that the cross-House support continues to hold through Committee stage. I feel very confident in recommending the Bill to pass through its remaining stages. I take the opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley for her work in bringing forward the Children Not in School (Registers, Support and Orders) Bill, which is due for Committee stage in the coming weeks and which the Government also support.

The pandemic was one of the biggest challenges ever posed to the education system, both here and around the world. Among its knock-on effects is this unprecedented impact on absence.

Before the pandemic we had had long success in bringing down absence. It had been 6% at the time of the change in Government back in 2010, and it came down to 4.7% just before covid. Persistent absence came down from 16.3% to between 10% and 11% in the second half of the decade, until the onset of covid. Our goal is to build on the strengths of the existing system to improve attendance levels as quickly as possible back to pre-pandemic levels, and indeed better.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford reminded us, this issue is affecting different jurisdictions and education systems right around the western world from Norway to New Zealand. In England, it is one of our top priorities, and I am pleased to be able to say that we are seeing a difference. Thanks to the brilliant efforts of our school leaders, teachers and other members of staff, 440,000 fewer pupils were persistently absent or not attending in the past academic year than in the previous one. We welcome that improvement, but there is still clearly further to go to get to pre-pandemic levels, and indeed to improve further on them. There are still parts of the country where families do not yet have access to the right support. As my right hon. Friend outlined, the Bill will improve the consistency of support available in all parts of England, giving parents increased clarity, and levelling up standards across all 24,000 schools and 153 local authorities. Ultimately, this is about their 9 million pupils.

The Bill contains two main clauses: the first will impose a general duty on local authorities to exercise their functions with a view to promoting attendance and reducing absence in their areas, and the second will require schools of all types to have and to publicise a school attendance policy.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker
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Ministers have to think carefully about imposing new duties on schools, but is not the reality that the vast majority of schools already have an attendance policy? Schools publicising it, however—sharing it and making it public—will be useful in encouraging dialogue with parents, local authorities and all the other organisations that come forward. What the Bill does in calling for publicity for the attendance policies is vital.

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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All that my hon. Friend says is correct. All schools have some form of attendance policy. There is some variation, and one of the things that is happening through this process—the Bill, and our wider work with behaviour hubs and champions, and so on—is to spread best practice. There is real interest from schools in doing so, because they see some of the variation in attendance rates and want to be able to do everything possible. Publicising is part of that. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford said, when going into a secondary school, for example, families will know what the policy is, which itself can be a help in upholding those attendance policies.

Oral Answers to Questions

Robin Walker Excerpts
Monday 29th April 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Select Committee.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I welcome what Secretary State has just said about the workforce, and it is vital that we get that into place, but a week on from the publication of the Buckland review and two years on from the Education Committee’s call to bolster careers support for children with SEN, can she update us on what Ministers and the Department are doing to work with the Department for Work and Pensions to provide wider opportunities for young people with autism?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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We all know that most people with learning disabilities want to work, and with the right support they can work. The SEND code of practice is clear that all children and young people with special educational needs should be prepared for adulthood, including employment. We are investing £80 million in a supported internship programme, which is very successful, and we will be doubling this by March 2025. We are working with the DWP on a number of programmes and, following the Buckland review, the DWP is setting up a task group to consider all the recommendations.

Childcare Entitlements

Robin Walker Excerpts
Tuesday 23rd April 2024

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I call the Chair of the Education Committee.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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There is much in this statement to be welcomed. The Education Committee welcomed the expansion of childcare, broadening the offer, and the increase in funding for the funded hours, and this delivers on some of that. It is an early success story, but as the Opposition have said, there are clearly serious risks as the plan expands exponentially over the coming years. In order to address those risks, the Minister needs to secure more funding and more places.

The 13,000 places are a welcome start and more staff in the sector are vital, but can he assure me that on top of the very welcome half a billion pounds that was secured in the spending review, he will keep making the case and keep listening to the providers about the funding they need to keep moving this forward? Can he ensure that the same quantum of increase is there for the under two-year-olds as it is for the two-year-olds, compared to what is currently paid in the private sector?

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising some important issues. He is right that certainty and increasing those rates have been some of the most important things that the sector has asked for. It was very warmly received that we were providing that certainty for 2025-26 and 2026-27, which we think will help the sector. According to various reports that have been carried out, it will help them to unlock private sector investment and capital to help them expand, because that was the biggest thing they felt might be holding that back. It is part of a doubling of the amount that we are spending on childcare, from £4 billion to £8 billion. I will continue to work with my hon. Friend in ensuring we address the sector’s needs.

Oral Answers to Questions

Robin Walker Excerpts
Monday 11th March 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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On the condition of school buildings, the hon. Lady will know that there is £1.8 billion-worth of capital for maintaining and improving school buildings. On the broader questions about school funding, she might have been alluding—I am looking for some visual recognition—to figures put together by the National Education Union. If so, I have to tell her that we believe those figures to be flawed in multiple respects, including in assumptions they make about the money and the number of children in schools in previous years. I hope she will join me in celebrating the record resourcing rightly going in to educating children.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I welcome the record real-terms funding flowing into our schools, but will my right hon. Friend join me in looking very carefully at the case for extending funding for tutoring? It has raised attainment, in particular for the most disadvantaged, in many of our schools, and been seen as a great success story. When it was introduced, it was intended to be a long-term intervention. May I urge the Minister to continue to look at that and ensure we find money, in addition to the pupil premium, to support that noble aim?

Damian Hinds Portrait Damian Hinds
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I absolutely agree that tutoring is important in multiple contexts. In particular, in the years since the pandemic it has played an essential part. I will add that tutoring by undergraduates can help to introduce a wider range of people to the potential of a career in teaching. I want tutoring to continue. As my hon. Friend rightly mentions, part of the function of the pupil premium is to make such interventions and it can be spent on them.

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Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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There would be no childcare on the table if the Labour party were in charge, so I urge all working parents to support the Conservative party, which has a plan for them. Like everything we do, the £500 million will be fully funded. It secures the rates in the future so that businesses up and down the country have the confidence to invest. The Labour party has absolutely no plan for childcare and for supporting working parents in this country.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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T4. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly championed childcare and early education. I congratulate her on the £500 million in this year’s Budget, on top of the billions committed last year to the sector—

Bridget Phillipson Portrait Bridget Phillipson
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indicated dissent.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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It is in the Red Book. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady to show her where it is.

I urge the Secretary of State to keep pressing on some of the Education Committee’s other recommendations, including on extending family hubs, removing rates and VAT from childcare providers, and reforming tax-free childcare to drive take-up.

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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This Conservative Government are backing this country’s brilliant childcare providers as we roll out our historic childcare offer. As my hon. Friend has pointed out, that is on top of the roll-out of universal services in family hubs. To give certainty to the early years sector, we have confirmed that average funding rates will increase over the next two financial years—as he stated, the details are in the Red Book—giving them the confidence to invest and expand. Only the Conservatives have a plan for hard-working parents.

Kinship Care Strategy

Robin Walker Excerpts
Wednesday 6th March 2024

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) on securing this important debate. The turnout in the Chamber reflects the importance that MPs across the House place on this issue.

I have some brilliant local kinship carers and I pay tribute to the work that Enza Smith has done over many years on behalf of kinship carers in Worcester. I also pay tribute to a constituent, Julie Rose, who came to see me recently to raise some of the issues and some of the concerns of the #ValueOurLove campaign.

I do not want to repeat points that other hon. Members have made, because they made them very well, but respite care is vital and I have to say that in my constituency at the moment I am concerned by cuts to respite care. I hope the additional £500 million for children’s and adult social care announced in the Budget might help local authorities to redress some of those cuts, but that issue is undoubtedly important.

I also think kinship carers need access to other forms of support—bereavement support, in many cases. Even when a parent has not actually died, children face separation issues, having moved away from their original parents and into the care of another family member. Support such as counselling, which is offered to foster families in many cases, also needs to be considered specifically for kinship carers.

Of course, I welcome the fact that we now have the first kinship care strategy and I very much welcome the pilots; indeed, I have asked for Worcestershire to be considered as one of the areas in which those pilots take place. However, given the scale of what we know kinship carers are doing for children, we should be going beyond pilots and looking to fund and support kinship care more systematically across the country. The returns from doing so are pretty obvious and pretty clear.

Regarding the outcomes, we have already heard that the Education Committee has begun an inquiry into children’s social care; I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of that inquiry, because we are in the early days of receiving evidence, but we have already heard about the much better outcomes for children in kinship care, in terms of life chances, long-term employment and life expectancy. We should celebrate all those outcomes and the contributions that families can make to them.

I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) wishes she could be here for this debate. On the Education Committee, she has already made the point about the need for kinship carers effectively to have parental leave and for a more systematic approach when people take on the responsibilities of kinship care, so that they can then have some time to spend with their new charges. We should make sure that businesses support that. The guidance mentioned in the kinship care strategy is a welcome first step in that direction. We will continue to work on this issue as part of our work on social care in the Select Committee. I look forward to hearing the evidence that kinship carers can bring to us, so that we can strengthen the evidence-based case for the Government to take further action.

Colleges Week

Robin Walker Excerpts
Thursday 29th February 2024

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Robert, and to speak in this debate.

It is right that we pay tribute to the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this debate. I know that he is incredibly passionate about further education and the skills sector, and he has raised a number of very important issues, which I will address. I also acknowledge his work on the all-party parliamentary group on further education and lifelong learning—I am a passionate supporter of that group—and work of the Association of Colleges, as the secretariat to the group.

I thank all our colleges up and down the country for the vital contribution they make to our national skills system, and to young people and adult learners across the country. In addition to noting the support and advice from the Association of Colleges, it is worth our reflecting on the support and advice that comes from the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, and our qualification providers, including City & Guilds and others, which have also played an important role in the Future Skills Coalition. In addition, this week, FE Week and City & Guilds put on the annual apprenticeships conference, which played an important part in pulling everybody together during this important week.

I acknowledge the contribution made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), who made important points about engagement with employers and about how Harrogate College is helping to meet local skills and workforce needs. That is a story that all our colleges could share, so it was good to hear those examples.

The hon. Member for Waveney said that colleges play an important role around the UK in our skills system and are firmly embedded in our communities. They understand the needs of our local economies, and have played an important role in the development of our local skills improvement plans. Like many other college leaders, Tracy Aust, the principal of West Thames College in Hounslow, who also oversees the Feltham skills centre, has been pivotal in pulling together those voices so that we can better match the skills needs in our local economy with the provision coming through our colleges. That also helps local authorities and other players to develop a deeper understanding of the community learning requirements.

In that context, our FE institutions truly stand as pillars of knowledge and ambition, but they are also beacons of adaptability. They work together to foster an environment that encourages lifelong learning. One of the best parts of my role as shadow Minister is going to colleges across the country to meet and listen to learners and employers. That includes West Thames College and the Feltham skills centre, which do important wrap-around work on employability and mentoring. Logistics apprentices from the Institute of Couriers are in Parliament today to celebrate their achievements. I pay tribute to the chairman of the institute, Carl Lomas, for all he does, with great enthusiasm, including building links and investing in colleges. The apprentices I saw today feel they know him personally. Those relationships and that social capital around our systems are really important.

I have spoken to students studying T-levels, apprenticeships and higher technical qualifications, and adult learners upskilling, at City and Islington College. I have spoken to people working and learning at the National College for Nuclear, and health and aerospace apprentices in Milton Keynes, Newcastle and Liverpool. Last week, I visited South and City College in Birmingham to see the important new facilities for robotics, electric vehicles and so on. This is not just about connecting young people and adult learners with the content of learning, but about giving them hands-on experience with new technologies.

I am launching my colleges tour over the next few months, which will focus on how we are engaging with small and medium-sized enterprises in our communities and what the barriers are. SME apprenticeship levels have been dropping significantly—they have fallen by 49% since 2016—and we absolutely must turn that around.

As a nation, our No. 1 priority is to grow our economy so that we can invest in our public services and greater opportunities for all. To achieve that ambition for growth, we need to invest in human talent to grow our skills and our workforce across all sectors where there are skill shortages. Colleges play an important role in delivering skills for green infrastructure, our creative industries, our life sciences sector, our public services and our everyday economy, including hospitality. All those things require workforces with specialised skills. It is vital that people across our country have pathways into high- quality vocational training, secure, enjoyable work, and opportunities to upskill. I have talked to adult learners who have told me that the qualifications they did five or 10 years ago have left them out of date, compared with those coming through the system now. Given that nine out of 10 adults are likely to need some retraining in the next decade, that will be an important part of all our futures.

Colleges are uniquely placed to deliver on this combined mission of economic growth and improved life chances for all. They provide an exceptionally diverse range of education and training courses to meet the needs of local economies. They are centres of lifelong learning for people of all ages and at all levels, as the hon. Member for Waveney so effectively highlighted. But just as it is important to acknowledge the successes of colleges this week, we must also acknowledge the challenges they face, a number of which were eloquently outlined by the hon. Member.

As examples, apprenticeship numbers have fallen, real-terms funding for the further education sector has fallen to record lows, and vital decision-making powers have been taken away from local communities. The Conservatives have also overseen more than a decade of decline in skills and training opportunities. I say that because apprenticeship starts have fallen by 200,000 since 2017—it is important to recognise the figures. In every region, apprenticeship starts have fallen since 2010, and small and medium-sized enterprise engagement with apprenticeships has fallen by 49% since 2016.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I apologise to the Chair, as I will not be able to stay to the end of the debate as I have a meeting with the head of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service to talk about progression and issues of this sort.

With apprenticeships, it is very important that we compare like with like. It is a great thing that all apprenticeships now involve a year of work and a qualification. That was not the case under the last Labour Government.

I want to put on the record my tribute to the Heart of Worcestershire College and the Worcester Sixth Form College, for the fantastic work they do. I commend to both Front Benches the report from the Education Committee on post-16 qualifications, which made a number of recommendations, including increasing the number of youth apprenticeships and setting a target for the proportion of apprenticeships that lead people into work.

Seema Malhotra Portrait Seema Malhotra
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I thank the hon. Member for his contribution and for sharing the work of the colleges in his area, with which I know he is well connected. I acknowledge his work as Chair of the Education Committee, including on that report.

It is important that we are clear about the figures, but it is also important to recognise that things have got harder, particularly for small businesses, since the implementation of the levy. We need to address those challenges. For level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships, the numbers are falling in proportion to apprenticeships as a whole—these are challenges that the Education Committee has rightly highlighted. It is important to make sure that there are pathways post-16 for those who may not have the same qualifications at GCSE. That is a point I will refer to further in my remarks.

It is also true that the Government are on track to miss the 67% achievement rate, with almost half of apprenticeships not being completed. There are a range of reasons for that. Level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships have seen some of the worst falls; there has been a 69% fall in the number of starts at level 2 and a 21% fall in the number of starts at level 3. In addition, too many young people and adult learners say they are not aware of the opportunities available to them. Colleges have also seen real-terms funding cuts under successive Tory Governments. Since 2010, spending per pupil has fallen by 14% in colleges and 28% in school sixth forms.

Labour will put colleges at the heart of our plans for breaking down barriers to opportunity and boosting Britain’s skills. Central to that is our plan to develop technical excellence colleges, enabling colleges in local skills improvement plan areas to specialise in the particular needs of their local economies and businesses, driven by LSIP priorities. We know that Whitehall does not have all the answers for what is needed in our local communities. That is why we will continue to build on the already begun process of devolving and combining power and budgets for skills and adult education to combined authorities and local areas, so that the right decisions and right priorities are led by those with the most local information, who are in the right places.

These plans will empower FE colleges to take a lead in responding to local needs. We see it as important that we reform the apprenticeship levy to become, in part, the growth and skills levy, giving businesses and employers the flexibility they need to invest in skills and training and to continue to support SMEs to take up apprenticeships, too. An estimated £3 billion in unspent levy has gone to the Treasury since 2019 that could have been spent on more training opportunities for learners and, through that, on training providers too, supporting capacity to grow the sector. The system is not working as it needs to be. Bringing more flexibility is a policy backed by the Manufacturing 5, the British Retail Consortium, techUK, the Co-operative Group, City & Guilds—the list goes on.

It is vital that young people are aware of their post-16 options so that they know which routes are open to them and how to take them. That is why Labour wants to train more thsn 1,000 new professional careers advisers. I recognise the point made by the hon. Member for Waveney about fragmented advice and guidance, but we want to train those new advisers for students in our colleges and schools and introduce two weeks of compulsory work experience for every student to connect them earlier with the workplace.

There are real concerns about the chaotic roll-out of T-levels and the phasing out of many overlapping qualifications among college staff and young people—a serious issue that has been raised with me. The Protect Student Choice campaign estimates that 155,000 students could be left without an appropriate course of post-16 study if the Government go ahead with these plans in this way. That is why Labour will ensure that all students are able to complete their qualifications and will pause and review the proposed removal of courses until we can be sure that these reforms will not prevent young people from pursuing high-quality vocational qualifications.

In conclusion, boosting Britain’s skills will be a national ambition for Labour, led by our new body Skills England, which will help provide that overarching national skills framework, connecting that with regional and local need, and will bring together businesses, training providers and unions to meet the skills needs of the next decade across all our regions. I am proud to say that colleges will be at the heart of that ambition.

Oral Answers to Questions

Robin Walker Excerpts
Monday 29th January 2024

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I very much welcome the fact that this Government are doubling investment in early years and childcare. As the Secretary of State said earlier with regard to special educational needs, early identification of need is absolutely key. From that perspective, will the Minister meet me to discuss the urgent need for a specialist assessment centre in Worcester, after the loss of the one in Fort Royal? It has gone out for commissioning, but unfortunately we have not had any bids to host the new one, and we need to get on with delivering one for next September.

David Johnston Portrait David Johnston
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I do not know the details of my hon. Friend’s specific case, but I would be delighted to meet him to discuss it further.

Oral Answers to Questions

Robin Walker Excerpts
Monday 23rd October 2023

(9 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Education Committee.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I am grateful to the permanent secretary for writing to the Committee as soon as that recent funding error was identified, and for her apology for the concern that it caused. Although no actual money was lost to schools as a result, it reflects the complexity of the current system. We have promised a fair formula for funding, which will flow directly to schools. When do Ministers expect to be able to legislate to put that in place?

Gillian Keegan Portrait Gillian Keegan
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It is our intention to legislate, but I cannot give a date for that at the Dispatch Box. I will keep my hon. Friend informed.

Core School Budget Allocations

Robin Walker Excerpts
Tuesday 17th October 2023

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We come to the Chair of the Select Committee.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I am grateful for the apology and the letter that the Select Committee received on this issue, which we have published today. Clearly, it is deeply unfortunate that this error took place. It is a result of a complex and very difficult to understand funding system that provides schools with a lack of transparency as to how their funding works in the long run.

We were elected on a manifesto to deliver a fair national funding formula. There were plans in place to legislate for the direct funding of schools. While I welcome my right hon. Friend’s confirmation that this does not in any way affect the high needs block or take money out of the overall school budget, can he update the House on plans to deliver that direct funding formula, which, along with multi-year funding settlements, the Select Committee and the sector have been calling for over many years?

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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Yes, it is unfortunate, for which officials and Ministers have apologised. It is frustrating, particularly for local authorities that have to conduct their calculations—it was an error based on the coding of the pupil numbers.

My hon. Friend mentioned moving to the direct funding formula. That is the intention of the Government, and the latest edition of the national funding formula and high needs technical briefing does say that we want ultimately to get to direct funding. Many local authorities are moving their local funding formula ever closer to the approach taken in the national funding formula.

Early Years Childcare

Robin Walker Excerpts
Monday 16th October 2023

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for childcare and the early years.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate early in this parliamentary sitting period and for allowing the Education Committee to continue its work on this vital area of policy. I am also grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), recognising the pressure on parliamentary time today, for having withdrawn her equally important debate. I hope that she secures another one on that subject.

When I ran to be Chairman of the Education Committee, I proposed an inquiry into early education and childcare, and I was very glad to get the support of a substantial majority across the whole House, as well as from individual members of the Committee in pursuing that. As the parent of a five-year-old and two-year-old, I should perhaps declare a special personal interest in this area, but there is probably no single subject more vital to the future success of our children than their earliest experiences of education, and the stimulation, engagement and support they can receive through high-quality early years education and childcare.

As many others have argued, there is enormous economic benefit from investment in this space. However, the last time I troubled the Backbench Business Committee for time to debate it was in advance of the last Budget, when I was very glad that the Treasury accepted the case for major new financial commitments in this area. I said then that investment in childcare and early education would benefit multiple groups: parents who wish to work; schools to have properly socialised children ready to learn; children who benefit from better stimulation; and those with special educational needs with earlier identification. It is a win to the power of four.

Our inquiry was launched before the very significant expansion in the Government’s childcare offer and their plans for substantially increasing investment in the funded hours. It is important to note, however, that our oral evidence was taken both before and after the detail of the announcements became known. We heard both the relief of the sector at the scale of the commitment being made and also many of its ongoing concerns about the complexity of the many schemes of funding, the overall level of funding going into childcare, particularly for three and four-year-olds, and the many serious and ongoing pressures facing providers.

I am enormously grateful to the many expert witnesses, parents, providers, academics, campaigners, childminders and nursery practitioners who gave evidence to us. Indeed, it is worth noting that this inquiry received more written submissions than any other in the life of my Committee and, in so far as my Clerks recall, any other inquiry in the history of the Education Committee. I put on record my thanks to the Clerks of the Committee and their apprentice, who had to handle an unprecedented quantity of material with calm determination and expertise.

Due to the very important list of other debates that have taken place today, I will not have time to re-present every one of the 21 recommendations that we made in the report on the back of the more than 10,000 pieces of evidence. However, I want to remind the Minister of the pressing nature of the challenge, reflected in the enormous public response to our call for evidence, and I will focus on three key recommendations.

The affordability of childcare is a key concern for parents, and before the Budget it was becoming clear that the sector was facing a crisis of both affordability and availability. I have no doubt that the additional hundreds of millions in funding this year and next will make some difference, and that the roll-out of funded hours for the under-threes over the next few years will make a big difference for working parents, but I urge the Government to consider very carefully recommendations 6, 8 and 11, as well as overarching recommendations 1 and 2 on the need to work across Government to ensure adequate funding. The additional billions that the Government have committed over the long term will succeed only if the sector is properly supported in the short and medium term and if we continue to have strong and thriving early years education across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

I know the Department for Education is not able to make decisions on taxation, but I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider very carefully the case for our recommendation on exempting childcare providers from business rates and the payment of VAT on building costs. Not only are these taxes a false economy for the Treasury, as the DFE’s evidence admits these costs have to be taken into account in a setting’s funding rates, but they are a barrier to much-needed expansion to meet the Government’s own ambitions. Worse, many childcare businesses pointed out to the Committee that the size of their premises is a matter not of choice but of meeting regulatory standards required by Government and Ofsted guidelines. They therefore find themselves having to pay more in business rates not as a result of a commercial decision to expand but as a result of wishing to meet the space standards set by public bodies.

I raised nurseries’ pressing concerns about their rapidly increasing business rates bills in a previous debate but, as our unanimous recommendations suggest, fixing this problem and creating a level playing field among providers on rates and VAT should not be used as a cost-saving measure; it should be used to ensure that more resources are available for paying, upskilling and retaining expert staff. In support of this recommendation, written evidence from the National Education Union said:

“Business rates for nursery schools can be over £100,000 in some areas, so the absence of a rebate is a significant pressure on already overstretched budgets.”

Written evidence from the National Day Nurseries Association said:

“Business rate property revaluation from April 2023 has seen providers report bill increases of 40-50%.”

In a survey of NDNA members, 782 nurseries across England were asked what they would do if they no longer had to pay business rates: 61% said they would increase staff salaries; 49% said they would reduce losses in their business; and 40% said they would mitigate fee increases to parents. If affordability and quality are as important to the Government as availability, I believe that they should take account of this evidence. I know my hon. Friend the Minister is passionate about social mobility and the benefits of early years education, and I urge him to ensure this continues to be pressed with the Treasury.

We have heard strong arguments from the Treasury about the benefit to parents of being able to work, where there is affordable childcare provision. This has been a key rationale for the expansion of so-called free hours, which we have recommended should be called “funded hours,” down the age groups. It was a key rationale behind the very welcome changes to childcare costs within universal credit. However, in that context, I urge the Minister to press his Treasury colleagues on recommendation 11 for a fundamental review of the tax-free childcare system to improve both understanding and uptake.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tax-free childcare report and survey of 2021 found that 43% of people found the name confusing or unclear. Of these, 58% said it prevented them from looking into tax-free childcare and 54% said it prevented them from signing up to the scheme. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said that

“in the four years after introducing tax-free childcare, the government spent £2.3 billion less on the scheme than it had planned.”

In the written evidence we received from parents, they said:

“The tax free childcare system is confusing and onerous to use, and complicated to calculate.”

Childminders told us:

“Not enough parents know about Tax-Free-Childcare, especially not the self-employed. Many parents also find it…difficult to set up the payments.”

My biggest disappointment with the announcements made at the Budget is that the tax-free childcare system was not touched, yet we know that the theoretical benefits of this policy are not reaching a very substantial proportion of the parents it was designed to help.

Worse, in answer to my written parliamentary questions, we have seen that even those who have gone to the trouble of registering or re-registering for support through the current cumbersome system, only around half actually claim anything from it, which does not suggest a system that is living up to its promise.

The Select Committee made a number of other suggestions for supporting affordability for parents, not least our call in recommendation 13 for better support for stay-at-home parents.



The last area I want to press particularly hard with my colleague on the Front Bench is the logic of our recommendation on offering funded support to parents in training or study. The logic is that elsewhere across education policy the Government are going out of their way to encourage people to upskill, supporting lifelong learning and investing in the long-term productivity of our country by ensuring people are better skilled. It is, therefore, counterproductive to disincentivise parents from pursuing higher qualifications by making 30 hours of childcare available only to working families on a particular income, and explicitly not to those in study. The recent report by the all-party parliamentary group for students on the cost of living and its impact on students highlighted the severe challenges facing parents in study. Addressing that, as part of our recommendation 18, would make a massive difference to that group of parents.

Supporting the workforce, expanding family hubs, not just in some areas but across the whole country, expanding the early years pupil premium and investing in early intervention and training to identify and meet special educational needs are among the other key recommendations of our report. I could speak passionately in favour of every single one of our key recommendations and, when the Select Committee meets tomorrow, I look forward to the detailed consideration of the Government’s response, but I know many other Members want to speak in the debate.

I end by commending the whole report of my Committee to my hon. Friend the Minister. Having served in the Government, I appreciate that he may not be able to accept every one of our recommendations straight away, but I hope he will recognise the weight of evidence that sits behind them, the incredible importance of getting policy in this area right and the immense value of continuing to invest in our children.

Our Prime Minister has described education as

“the closest thing we have to a silver bullet”

for improving productivity. I welcome his commitment to making education the main funding priority in every spending review—early years education needs to be at the forefront of that. Having worked with my hon. Friend the Minister over a number of years, I know how passionate he is about evidence-based policy to improve life chances for children, closing the attainment gap and tackling disadvantage. There can be no greater impact on each of those than investing effectively in early years.

I am hugely grateful to colleagues from across the House who have supported the debate and I am delighted that we have a maiden speech to look forward to from one of the House’s newest Members. I commend this report and debate to my hon. Friend the Minister.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I remind Members that this is a maiden speech and there will be no interruptions.