King’s Speech

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Friday 19th July 2024

(5 days, 10 hours ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I open my remarks with a warm welcome to all noble Lords who made their maiden speeches today. The speech of my noble friend Lady Monckton of Dallington Forest was striking both for her modesty about her skills in public speaking and for her very evident compassion and extraordinary achievements through Team Domenica. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, for her moving valedictory speech, which I gather got her to almost 600 contributions in Hansard in your Lordships’ House.

In particular, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Malvern, on her maiden speech. She brings not only a lot of experience but relevant experience to your Lordships’ House, and I know that this will be valued by all of us. She and I share some things. Her work with the Jo Cox Foundation focused on loneliness, and I had the privilege to cover that in DCMS. Sadly, there is one important divide between us which I am not sure we will be able to bridge: the noble Baroness clearly has great skills on the dance floor. My ballet report at the end of my first term, aged four, said “Diana has no natural talent”.

I also welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, to her place, and I wish her and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Malvern, every success in their new roles. My noble friend Lord Howe once said to me that there are two departments to which every person in the country wants to succeed: one is health and the other is education. They have very special roles.

It struck me, when I looked back over many years at speeches from both the Opposition and the Government in these debates, and at election results, how much commonality of aspiration there has been between different parties on all sides of the House on the issues that we are debating, although we may differ on the ways of achieving those aspirations. That is in part reflected by the legislation in the King’s Speech, as several Bills in this area were part of the previous Government’s legislative plans.

Before I go on to talk about the substance of the King’s Speech and the Government’s proposals, I will make my round of personal thank yous. I am very touched by all the thank yous I have received from your Lordships today, but I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Twycross and Lady Wilcox of Newport, who generated just the right level of anxiety for me, every time I was on the Front Bench, to keep me on my non-dancing toes.

I turn to the legislation, starting with the health Bills. On this side of the House we welcome the decision to progress with the reform of the Mental Health Act. The previous Government undertook very thorough pre-legislative scrutiny and worked hard with families, the mental health voluntary sector, practitioners and parliamentarians to make sure that the legislation would genuinely result in better decisions when someone needs to be detained under the Mental Health Act, in particular—as we heard from a number of your Lordships—when that detention relates to a child. I would be grateful if, in her closing remarks, the noble Baroness could reassure the House that the substance of the Government’s new Bill will reflect the previous Government’s commitments in this area. Understandably, the Government have said that implementation will take place in phases, when there is sufficient skilled workforce to deliver the reforms. When will the Government set out their timetable for implementation?

We also welcome the decision to proceed with a tobacco and vapes Bill, and we agree with many of your Lordships’ comments about the important contribution that this can make to the health and well-being of our nation.

I think I am right in saying that there was an announcement this morning that the Government will proceed with a royal commission on social care. There have been multiple reviews of social care, so it would help the House if the noble Baroness could explain which unanswered questions a new royal commission would focus on and what its timescale is.

On education, there are elements of the children’s well-being Bill that we on this side of the House welcome. In particular, we are pleased to see plans to set up a register for children not in school, which is something that we had wanted to do and spent many hours debating in this Chamber—as my noble friend Lady Berridge said—often ably led by the noble Lord, Lord Soley. We also worked hard behind the scenes to reconcile some strongly felt views in this field, by both home-educating parents and local authorities, as demonstrated by the consultation on elective home education guidance, which closed in January this year and which I hope will prove useful to the new Government as they work on this area.

I was pleased to hear from the Minister that the Government intend to look at unregulated settings, but are there plans to look also at the quality of the education children educated at home receive? The scale of that issue has changed out of all recognition since Covid, and of course, every child has the right to a decent education.

Turning to the proposed multi-academy trust inspections, we also recognise the need to return to the basic principle that has underpinned so much of the success of schools in England: that accountability and autonomy are aligned and require high levels of transparency. The growth of multi-academy trusts has meant that, in some cases, accountability via Ofsted inspections has been at a school level while autonomy has been at a trust level. Rightly or wrongly, that has contributed to a sense of unfairness in our inspection system. The previous Government had begun work on this area, and we will offer constructive scrutiny of the new Government’s plans. While the principle of MAT accountability might be clear and simple, the implementation will certainly be complex, with implications for school inspections—which the Government are also proposing to change—for intervention powers and policies, and, not least, for the skill set that will be required of Ofsted to deliver that. Indeed, there is a valid question about whether inspection is the only or best route to achieve accountability.

More broadly, it is hard for us to discern the new Government’s vision for our schools from this Bill. We are genuinely puzzled by the focus on requiring all academies to adhere to the national curriculum: not only is this already the case for the vast majority but, even for the small number who do not adhere to it, the rigour of the Ofsted inspection regime assures the quality of the curriculum being taught in all our schools. Similarly, with close to 100% of teachers holding qualified teacher status, we are puzzled as to why this is a priority and what problem it really seeks to solve.

These measures, together with the duty to co-operate on school admissions and the insistence on annual safeguarding checks, leave us with a sense of a Government who, ironically, trust school teachers and leaders less than their predecessors. Our programme of reform was built on the premise that school and trust leaders were the real experts and that the route to quality, innovation and better outcomes for children was to trust them and give them agency. I fear that the proposed measures in this Bill may constrain some of that.

Turning to skills, the King’s Speech also included the Skills England Bill, which commits, if I have understood it correctly, to replace IfATE with a new body, Skills England. Again, I ask the Minister: what problem are the Government trying to solve with this change? IfATE played a very important—and, we believe, effective—role in putting employers at the heart of skills development. I look forward to hearing in future debates more about how the Government expect their wider reforms of the apprenticeship levy to unfold.

Returning to schools, it will not surprise the Minister that we on this side of the House have real concerns about the proposals to require independent schools to charge VAT on their fees. I would be grateful if she could confirm whether her Government will guarantee funding for all the areas where she has committed to invest the proceeds of the VAT on independent schools, even if it is not raised in full. Also, have the Government analysed the impact on every region of the availability of places in state-funded schools for children with special educational needs and disabilities whose parents can no longer afford private education?

One thing has not changed by moving sides: I have run out of time. I tried in my speech to focus on the legislation that the new Government are bring forward, but there are so many things that I have not had time to cover, including important issues such as teacher recruitment and retention; children with special educational needs and disabilities; the proposed changes to Ofsted; the curriculum; the new Government’s commitment to our capital programmes—particularly for schools affected by RAAC and by the Caledonian Modular problems—the future of the lifelong learning entitlement; and university funding.

We know that many of these issues are interlocking. Changes to the curriculum have implications for inspection, assessment and exams, and changes to the inspection regime have implications for intervention in underperforming schools. So great care will be needed with implementation. That is where the House in general, and these Benches in particular, come in. We will be constructive and always aim to bring fair challenge based on evidence. I hope the Minister recognises the achievements of the last Government, particularly in the area of education, and sees the new Government’s role as one of evolution rather than revolution.

School Funding: Special Educational Needs

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Thursday 23rd May 2024

(2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Watson of Invergowrie Portrait Lord Watson of Invergowrie
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the finding of the Sutton Trust’s School Funding and Pupil Premium 2024 survey published on 19 April, particularly with regard to special educational needs.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, including additional pay and pension grants, school funding is increasing to £60.7 billion this year, the highest ever in real terms per pupil, supporting school leaders to meet their costs. This includes over £10.5 billion in high-needs funding, an increase of over 60% from the 2019-20 allocations. Pupil premium funding is rising to over £2.9 billion, a 10% increase from 2021-22. School leaders have flexibility in how they use this to best support disadvantaged pupils.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie Portrait Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am afraid that the Minister’s response does not reflect the reality in schools today. Pupil premium is additional funding given to schools to help support disadvantaged pupils, so it is scandalous that the Sutton Trust review found that half of school leaders were having to use some of those funds to plug gaps elsewhere in their budgets, and three-quarters of head teachers said that they had had to reduce the number of teaching assistants, despite an increase of 20% in the number of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities since 2019. For over half of that period, the Minister has held the title of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System. As parents of school-age children, not least of those with SEND, consider how to vote on 4 July, will the Minister offer them an apology?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

No, the Minister certainly would not feel that to be appropriate. Looking at how pupil premium can be used, the Education Endowment Foundation has directed three areas: high-quality teaching, which the Government have supported through the national professional qualifications programme, targeted academic support, and tackling non-academic barriers. I very much appreciate and respect the Sutton Trust’s research, but it does not explain that the number of teaching assistants, a figure cited by the noble Lord, rose by 5,300 last year, up by 59,600 since 2010-11.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, it would be remiss not to thank the Minister for her time in that role. She has always been courteous and on top of her brief. I think she is just a decent person, actually. As she said, the Sutton Trust’s is a highly respected annual report on the state of schooling in this country. I do not think anybody can be unaware that schools are struggling with budgets and having to move money around. One of the biggest findings that concerns me in that report is that there has been a 74% cut in funding towards teaching assistants. These are the lifeblood of any school, particularly in supporting children with special educational needs. Presumably the new Minister’s in-tray will have to deal with this problem. Does this Minister not accept that we need to sort out the funding properly for all our schools?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

We give schools a great deal of discretion over how they use their budgets. It is right that we want the experts who know their community to use funds as they see fit, and the noble Lord knows from his own experience that schools use these budgets in very different ways. I was in a school recently which actually no longer used teaching assistants, but had dropped the class size dramatically as a result. It had teachers but a much smaller number of pupils in the class. The underlying principle, that we should trust our trusts and school leaders on how they spend the budget, is the one that any Government should support.

Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we are talking about pupil premiums, and the Government once promised the introduction of an arts premium, which was never delivered. It may be a bit late now, but I hope that whatever Government are in charge on 17 July will reconsider that.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The noble Earl may be right that we are timed out on an arts premium.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister join me in congratulating Thames Christian School in Battersea, which has recently won a prestigious RIBA award for the architecture of its building? In the head teacher’s response to that award, he outlined that, of the 400 students in that fee-paying school, 200 have special educational needs. What advice is being given to schools such as that about how they might approach supporting parents who are unsure about whether their children can continue if the school fees are increased?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am delighted to join my noble friend in celebrating that success. That matter will be for individual parents in independent schools to work through. Independent schools have focused very much on supporting children and their parents where bursaries are required, but that is up to the parents and those schools.

Lord Watts Portrait Lord Watts (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Government always ignore the fact that they have had 14 years of cuts before they then make an announcement of some extra funding—which normally works out to about £3.50 per school. When will the Minister take a realistic view that schools need massive improvements and massive increases in their budgets if they are to deliver a good service?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am not sure where £60.7 billion relates to £3.50, as they are quite a way apart. I point the noble Lord to where our children are in the international league tables and the improvements we have made. He can roll his eyes, but facts are facts.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, what, if anything, in this highly respected report suggests that putting VAT on any form of education would be beneficial to our young people in this country?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The report focused on the state-funded sector and is therefore not related to VAT in education.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, research has found that children from the most disadvantaged areas are less likely to be identified with SEND and that they face higher thresholds for accessing support. Is that further evidence of the failure of this Government’s education policy?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

No, I do not accept that. As I said, this Government have focused very much on supporting schools and teachers to do their critical job brilliantly, and we should not question that. The support that we have put in for special educational needs has been unparalleled compared to any previous era.

Lord Addington Portrait Lord Addington (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the report also says that we have been cutting the use of information technology; I remind the House of my interests. Can the Minister tell us of anything that gives more promise for someone with special educational needs to function well in the school system—and in the workplace later on—than using the correct form of assistive technology?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

Having a highly skilled teacher to work with, combined with the assistive technology to which the noble Lord referred, is the critical part. That is one of the reasons that Huawei has worked with the sector: to reform the training not just for SENCOs but for those on their initial teacher training and early career frameworks to support children in mainstream education.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Portrait Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the wonderful job that she has done at the Dispatch Box. I also congratulate her on her patience in listening to questions from Members of the Opposition demanding more resources, when, as a party, it is not prepared to commit itself to a single cent of extra expenditure.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My noble friend is very kind—

None Portrait Noble Lords
- Hansard -

Oh!

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- Hansard - -

He is renowned for his kindness. This Government have backed education from day one and see it as absolutely critical for our future. Given the opportunity, we will continue to do so.

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I wish the Minister well for the future; she has been very accommodative over the years. Is it not true that, from this September, spending on schools will have returned to 2000 levels in real terms?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

From this September, funding for schools will be the highest it has ever been per pupil in real terms.

Covid-19 Pandemic: Educational Attainment

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Wednesday 22nd May 2024

(2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the attainment of children in schools, and what measures they are taking to address any adverse impacts.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the challenges of the pandemic were unprecedented and almost £5 billion was made available specifically for education recovery. The latest results from 2023 show positive signs. For example, reading attainment at key stage 2 is back to pre-pandemic levels but there is more to do. We know that regular school attendance is vital for children’s attainment and mental well-being, which is why attendance is my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education’s No. 1 priority.

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, studies have consistently shown that Covid-related disruption in schools negatively impacted the attainment of all pupils, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In August last year, Teach First’s polling showed that young people from the poorest backgrounds are twice as likely to feel pessimistic about their future career opportunities compared to the most affluent 16 to 18 year-olds. What more will the Government do to ensure that they get the support and the confidence they need for future success?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The noble Baroness is right that our focus needs to be on those disadvantaged children. That has been reflected in our strategy focusing on 55 education investment areas, where we are working with local schools and other stakeholders in particular to make sure that we address exactly the sorts of gaps the noble Baroness identifies.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right that there is much more to do—you have only to look at the problems facing schools, particularly in socially deprived communities. It is not just about academic achievement but pupils being able to socially interact and regulate their emotions. Research consistently shows that parental engagement is crucial to the academic and emotional development of young people. Do the Government have any plans to start programmes that would involve parents in this way?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I agree entirely with the noble Lord about the importance of social interaction and parental engagement. When I talk to schools about this, they frequently cite examples showing how important it is that they know their local community and have that relationship with parents. Of course we support schools to do that, and some of our communication campaigns on attendance have been directed very much at parents, but we support schools to make those judgments in their communities. However, I absolutely agree about the importance of that.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, thousands of young people will be taking their GCSE examinations this year who were also in year 7 when the pandemic began. Unfortunately, they have been doubly affected by being educated in schools which have been disrupted by the RAAC situation. Can my noble friend the Minister please outline what advice, assistance and best practice is being shared with those schools, so that they can make effective representations to the exam boards—which do listen to those representations—about the disruption that may have affected their education for a second time?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

We in the department have worked very closely with each of those individual schools. Of course, the disruption may have affected coursework rather more significantly than specific exams. We have therefore worked with every school that has wished to have our support, providing them with the funding to support their children in order to be able to catch up on any learning that was lost for those pupils in exam years, but also liaising with and supporting them in their engagement with the exam boards.

Baroness Blower Portrait Baroness Blower (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, will the Minister take the time to congratulate a class of children from Sulivan Primary School, in Fulham, who were the first to design a garden for the Chelsea flower show? It has been extraordinarily well received. It is called “No Adults Allowed”—although they did allow the King to go in. Does the Minister agree that gardening is brilliant for young people and there should be more of it in the curriculum—which could help with the post-Covid situation—and that it provides opportunities for careers beyond school?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am delighted to join the noble Baroness in congratulating Sulivan Primary School on its garden at Chelsea. I take this opportunity to shamelessly plug the National Education Nature Park, which is available to every early-years setting and every school and college in the country. It looks at opportunities for children to get outside, including gardening, and develop skills; and at opportunities to collaborate with other schools.

Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham Portrait The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, head teachers in my diocese in Nottinghamshire are reporting that the adverse impacts of the pandemic include a dramatic increase in attendance concerns, parental anxiety and pupils’ mental health difficulties. At the same time, they are reporting severe pressures on schools funding, leading to staff reductions, which cannot be in the best interests of children, especially where SEN provision is reduced. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the educational needs of SEN children, and what more can be done to mitigate this?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

Children with special educational needs and disabilities were of course greatly impacted during the pandemic. The Government have been working with a wide range of organisations in that area, including the National Network of Parent Carer Forums. Crucially, those organisations have been extremely supportive and helpful with our attendance work. The Government have committed considerable funding to increasing specialist capacity of places for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Lord Robathan Portrait Lord Robathan (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the House will recall that during the pandemic, the opposition parties wanted longer and fiercer restrictions than we got. Indeed, I have to tell the right reverend Prelate that the Church of England did not exactly cover itself in glory.

Lord Robathan Portrait Lord Robathan (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is true. Does my noble friend agree that the questionable benefits of those lockdowns were extremely dubious, given the appalling damage that was done to people’s education, and to the economy and other things?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am not entirely sure that revisiting whether we should have locked down gets us much further forward. The Government are genuinely, tirelessly focusing on everything we can do to support schools in order to ensure that children are back in school, attending every day and thriving.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister may recall that three years ago, a very distinguished educationalist who was appointed by the Government to make some recommendations on how to deal with education post-pandemic, Sir Kevan Collins, advised that £15 billion was required to set right the damage that had been done—whatever view we take about whether that damage was inevitable. Does the Minister think that the amount of resource that has been put in since that time, bearing in mind that he resigned when the Government reduced that figure to £1.4 billion, has been adequate?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The money the Government have put in has been focused particularly on the most disadvantaged children and on leaving a legacy in our schools. The proof of the pudding is that attainment at key stages 1, 2 and 4 are all on the increase.

Higher Education (Industry and Regulators Committee Report)

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Tuesday 21st May 2024

(2 months ago)

Grand Committee
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, for securing this important debate, and all members of the Industry and Regulators Committee for their work and scrutiny of the vital issues linked to the higher education sector and the Office for Students as its regulator. If I may, I also thank my noble friends Lord Johnson of Marylebone and Lord Willetts for their ministerial insights into the sector.

My noble friend Lord Johnson gave an incredibly helpful analysis and synopsis of the issues which led to the creation of an independent regulator with a focus on quality, competition, choice and value for money. I recognise some of his criticisms in relation to the way that government is structured, with part of the responsibility for the university sector sitting in the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology and part sitting in the Department for Education. I absolutely share his enthusiasm, and that of my noble friend Lord Willetts, for a real focus on innovation in the HE sector and on the lifelong learning entitlement.

I also thank my noble friend Lord Lucas for highlighting some really practical suggestions, which he brings from his experience of listening to students and parents, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, for the examples of his interactions with the OfS in practice. It was extremely helpful for all of us to hear that.

Before I go into the report itself, I want to touch briefly on the independence of the OfS. I can honestly say that, in my experience within the department, I do not recognise the picture that noble Lords painted of political priorities driving the work of the OfS. If I may say so, I felt a tension between the calls for real independence on the part of the OfS and calls for the Government to influence its direction even more, which is, perhaps, something for all of us to take away and reflect on. I asked colleagues to check how many guidance letters we sent to the OfS in the past 12 months. We have issued four guidance letters to it: two related to the expansion of medical places and two related to funding. I am not sure quite what the threshold is for the number of ministerial letters, but that does not feel too oppressive to me.

I turn not so much to the Government’s response to the committee’s report, which your Lordships have obviously seen, but rather to providing updates to show the progress made against its recommendations. The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, and others, dwelled on the importance of the relationship between the Office for Students, the students themselves and providers. I am pleased to see that the OfS has reflected on the committee’s recommendations regarding student interest in engagement. It has made sound progress in reaching out to students and inviting them to engage in its work, including work to reframe the OfS student panel, which I understand is now playing a key role in the development of the OfS’s new strategy for 2025 and beyond.

I know that the OfS has hosted numerous round tables and webinars, inviting students to contribute on its new freedom of speech and academic freedom functions to help inform proposals and consultations. Last month, the first meeting of the OfS’s new disability in higher education advisory panel—fondly known as DHEAP—took place, which will review how universities and colleges currently support disabled students and will make recommendations to improve their experience.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, asked me about annual reports on student engagement. We are not aware that a commitment was made in that regard, and I am not aware that those reports are planned, but if there is a misunderstanding I am happy to pick that up with her afterwards.

Regarding the relationship with the sector, I hope that your Lordships will be pleased to hear how the OfS reflected on the committee’s recommendations to enhance—

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so near the end of the debate, but I am afraid that a Division has been called, so the Committee will have to adjourn. I advise members of the Committee that there are likely to be two or three votes back to back, so it will be not a 10-minute adjournment. It will be substantially more, probably more like half an hour. I advise members of the Committee to keep their eyes on the annunciators, particularly after the second vote has been completed.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I was just starting to talk about the relationship of the OfS with the sector, which was a matter of concern to a number of your Lordships. The OfS has both reflected and acted on the committee’s recommendation to enhance its relationship and engagement with the sector. Senior OfS staff have visited over 80 universities and colleges across England as part of its new sector engagement programme, as well as hosting numerous online and in-person events for vice-chancellors, finance directors, institution staff and students alike to raise awareness and understanding of its regulatory work. The OfS recently commissioned a new piece of voluntary research to gather provider views to help improve how it works with the sector.

One of the key recommendations in the committee’s report was around clarity about the OfS’s duties and decision-making. The Government believe that the OfS’s statutory duties are clearly set out in legislation, through the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. In particular, we believe that it is right that institutional autonomy as an important principle should not always be prioritised above other important matters: for example, driving quality improvement.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, talked about the new powers and duties that Parliament has given to the OfS and suggested that those were perhaps not always the priorities of students, if I followed her remarks correctly. We believe that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act is critical to protecting academic freedom. Issues around the tragic events in the Middle East give us a very recent example of that, as the noble Lords, Lord Wharton of Yarm and Lord Mann, pointed out.

Additionally, we have asked the OfS to focus on tackling harassment and sexual misconduct, in response to evidence of a serious problem in our universities. The noble Lord, Lord Mann, asked for specific reassurances. We are still in the process of the consultation. We need to let that conclude, but I would be more than happy to meet with the noble Lord if that would be helpful. To enhance the OfS as an effective regulator that safeguards students’ interests, the Government announced an independent review of the regulator in December 2023, which is being conducted by Sir David Behan. It is due to conclude shortly and the Government will carefully consider its findings and recommendations.

A number of your Lordships, albeit from slightly different perspectives, talked about issues of financial sustainability in the sector, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Taylor and Lady Twycross, my noble friends Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Agnew, the noble Lord, Lord Storey, the noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, and others. It is crucial that we have a sustainable higher education funding system that meets the needs of the economy and is fair to students and to taxpayers. We keep the funding system under continuous review to make sure that this remains the case and that it offers diverse opportunities for learners to acquire vital skills.

The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, who is not in his place, was the first to focus on the cost side of universities, which is more within their power to control. I will comment on that also in response to my noble friend Lord Agnew’s remarks, even though he asked me not to respond—it is an irresistible opportunity. A number of your Lordships used the term “financial crisis”, and I understand why, but we should remember that in 2022-23, the total income for the higher education sector in England was £43.9 billion, up from £29.1 billion in 2015-16. Of that, approximately £16.3 billion, or about 37%, was provided by the Government. Over the current spending review period, the Government have also invested £1.3 billion in capital funding to support teaching and research through the Department for Education teaching grants and the DSIT research grants.

A number of your Lordships cited the figure of 40% of the sector being in deficit. That was cited in the recent OfS report as an expectation for this current financial year, 2023-24. The noble Viscount, Lord Chandos, asked if it was government policy to see the Rod Liddle projection of two-thirds of the sector disappearing: clearly that is not the case. That is important, I say in response to my noble friends Lord Agnew’s and Lord Lucas’s remarks. I think my noble friend used the term “impending financial collapse”. This is a sector that has grown 50% over the past few years. The OfS report projected a surplus of £2.1 billion for 2026-27, and a margin of 3.9%. Average borrowing in the sector is 30%. While the Government absolutely recognise some of the pressures and in particular some of the risks that the sector faces, that is not the typical picture of a sector facing impending collapse.

We also need to be careful in talking about 40% of providers, or roughly a third of providers this year. I talk here about the UK rather than England only: the aggregate deficit of those providers that were in deficit was just over £330 million; the aggregate surplus of those in surplus was £3.3 billion; and 50% of the aggregate deficit was accounted for by 10 providers. There really are outliers, in both surpluses and deficits. Making sweeping statements about the whole sector is not helpful but I will, of course, write to my noble friend as he requested.

A number of your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Twycross and Lady Taylor, asked about the sector’s dependency on international students and the Government’s position on that. Our international education strategy is absolutely clear that diversification and the sustainable recruitment of international students remain a key strategic priority. This is a core focus of the work of Sir Steve Smith, the UK’s international education champion. We are pleased that the latest figures show that providers are diversifying their recruitment of international students, with many increasing their intake from priority countries that were outlined in the International Education Strategy.

My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth asked me not to talk about how good the sector was, but if he will permit me just one sentence: as your Lordships noted, we have a world-class higher education sector, with four universities in the top 10 and 17 in the top 100. We have also educated 58 current and recent world leaders, and we continue to have an education system that is the envy of the world. We expect the UK to remain attractive to international students from across the globe.

In response to the question from the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, about our work with the Home Office, we have regular conversations with the Home Office about this issue. I think it is fair to say that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth was critical of the Government’s position in many areas, including this one. We are very clear that it is important that we have a competitive offer for international students that aligns with our strategic priorities for our economy, but we also need to keep the prestige and the brand of UK higher education.

I turn to the issue of value for money, which the committee’s report acknowledged could be measured in a number of different ways. I note the concerns expressed by my noble friends Lord Lucas and Lord Agnew in this regard. My noble friend Lord Lucas stressed the importance of making sure that students understand the value of and the outcomes from their courses. The noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, was concerned about a graduate’s future earnings being too crude a metric and that creative degrees might get marginalised as a result. I hope he would accept that the Government have had a huge focus on our creative industries. We recognise how important they are for the economy and our well-being as a society, and the great demands for skills that there are in those industries. I hope it will reassure him that we have commissioned the Institute for Fiscal Studies to research a new way of measuring the impact that courses have on a graduate’s future earnings, which we hope will be more sophisticated and incentivise the kinds of behaviours that we heard discussed today.

The noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, questioned the OfS approach to quality. We believe that the OfS has introduced a more rigorous and effective quality regime. It regulates quality by monitoring adherence to its conditions of registration, and of course condition B3 sets out minimum thresholds for student outcomes.

The noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, talked about the quality assessments that the Office for Students is carrying out. I think she quoted a figure of eight, which might have been the figure published; actually, 32 have been completed in the first cycle and the office is in the process of publishing all those reports. We hope very much that they will have a real impact and provide valuable information for students and providers alike.

How can I have only two minutes? Turning to the regulatory burden, again raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, the Government acknowledge the need to reduce regulatory duplication in the HE sector. We have established a new provider data forum, with the OfS and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, to identify and tackle data burden and duplication issues. We are also commissioning independent research to gain an understanding of the nature, scale and cumulative impact of data collection requirements across the sector.

The noble Lords, Lord Freyberg and Lord Parekh, talked about social mobility. I think the Grand Committee will have heard me say before that 18 year-olds in England from the most disadvantaged areas were 74% more likely to go to university in 2023 than they were in 2010.

In closing, I am grateful for the thoughtful contributions that all of your Lordships have made during this debate. There is an extraordinary amount of expertise in your Lordships’ House on both regulation and higher education. The Government are absolutely committed to making sure that we continue to have a higher education sector to be proud of, and to supporting the OfS to deliver regulation that enables that sector to remain world class.

Universities: Financial Sustainability

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Tuesday 21st May 2024

(2 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the financial sustainability of universities in England.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the Government recognise that the sector’s financial position has become increasingly challenging. The financial health report from the Office for Students makes clear that the business models for a significant number of providers must change to ensure that they are financially sustainable. Indeed, all providers must continue to adapt to uncertainties and financial risks. Ultimately, providers are independent from government and, as such, it is for them to decide how they manage their finances.

Lord Young of Cookham Portrait Lord Young of Cookham (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful to my noble friend. As she says, the universities are independent, but the Government set the framework within which they operate—freezing student fees for seven years and controlling student visas. Government has an overall responsibility to make sure that students get a good-quality education at universities and that they remain competitive internationally. What is my noble friend’s response to the rather worrying report from the Office for Students last week, which basically said that we need to review the business and funding model of universities if they are to continue to maintain their quality?

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The Government recognise the importance of having a thriving higher education sector which is responsive to the needs of the economy and funded in a way that is fair to taxpayers. We have demonstrated that commitment via our £1.3 billion of capital funding that was announced in this spending review, which is to support universities with teaching and research in key STEM areas and supporting roles in the NHS. As my noble friend said, the Office for Students was clear that providers need to review their business model and that there are very different business models across the sector.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Portrait Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Lab Co-op)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, has the Minister seen that even the Foreign Secretary contacted the Prime Minister to say that a curb on graduate visas could be devastating for universities? Next time she bumps into the Foreign Secretary, could she whisper in his ear that it is easier to cross the Floor of this House than it is down there?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I think the noble Lord is aware that the Government do not comment on leaks.

Lord Cromwell Portrait Lord Cromwell (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

If the Minister is not too busy whispering on the Front Bench, could she confirm whether, if a major university—say, one of the Russell group—were to fall over financially, it would be too big to fail, or would the Government bail it out?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

If the noble Lord looks at the recent data that has been produced on the financial health of our universities, he will see that larger universities, such as those in the Russell group, are in very good financial health and continue to show significant surpluses. Of course the Government have a role to play in making sure that student interests are protected in the case of a university failing.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Portrait Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, does the Minister agree that international students have a positive impact on our skills base, future workforce and international influence? Businesses recently said that they agree. If this is the case, why do the Government want to axe the graduate visa programme? Could it be that they are pandering to the right wing of the Conservative Party rather than thinking of the greater good of our country?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The Government recognise the value of international students and are very proud of our international education strategy and what it has achieved. However, the Home Secretary commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to write a report, which it published very recently, and the Government are considering its recommendations with care.

Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist Portrait Baroness Bloomfield of Hinton Waldrist (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

In light of the recent report from the Migration Advisory Committee—itself no pushover—can my noble friend reassure us that the Government will allow recent changes to postgraduate visas to work through the system before they make further changes, such as severely restricting graduate visas to particular subjects or universities, either of which could severely impact the already precarious financial status of some of our universities?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I recognise my noble friend’s concerns. We are committed to retaining the prestige and brand of UK higher education, which has been so successful in attracting international students. I repeat that the Government are reflecting on the findings of the MAC report. However, I point out that it found no widespread abuses of the system but pointed to specific concerns, including the use of recruitment agents.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the system is not working for students or universities. The issue with the Office for Students is clear, and the Government have worn down relationships with universities by ignoring this impending crisis. Does the Minister believe that there is a clear duty on the Government to step back and look at the approach that they have been pursuing?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I just cannot agree with the noble Baroness. Our universities are tremendously successful. Student numbers, both domestic and international, have risen year on year and funding has increased—for English universities by 50% since 2015-16. Clearly, the report was very helpful, constructive and nuanced in the way that it set out some of the risks for the sector, which need to be worked through.

Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare my interests at Cambridge and the Oxford International Education Group. Could the Minister explain to the House how the Government can say that they feel that higher education and its reputation is very important, and yet the Home Office keeps changing policies? Does that not send mixed messages to potential international students? Could UK plc not be doing a rather better job in terms of international higher education?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I remind the noble Baroness that our international strategy has been incredibly successful and hit its targets several years early, with 679,970 students in 2021-22. We have made some changes to the graduate route, for reasons that I think have been well articulated.

Lord Grabiner Portrait Lord Grabiner (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, does the Minister not think that perhaps the time has come to increase the cap? The £9,250 has been in place now for many years, and the only way that many universities are able to make it work is by charging some extortionate fees at the graduate non-regulated level.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I appreciate that, but the noble Lord will also understand the pressures that students face. We also have a responsibility to students to make sure that university is affordable.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare my interest as a visiting professor at King’s and chairman of FutureLearn. If the Prime Minister goes ahead with curbs to the graduate visa, would my noble friend the Minister say how we will replace the £12 billion in economic benefits that international students bring to priority category 1 levelling-up areas, including towns such as Stockton, Middlesbrough and Darlington, which receive £240 million of benefits every year from international students at Teesside University?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

With respect to my noble friend, he makes a very speculative statement, which makes it pretty hard for me to comment on it.

Viscount Hanworth Portrait Viscount Hanworth (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is doubtless aware that the pension fund of university lecturers is mainly invested in Thames Water. Traditionally, the munificence of the university pension scheme was regarded as a compensation for penurious academic salaries. Is the Minister aware of how difficult it will now be to attract people of talent into the profession, given the collapse of the pension scheme?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

Obviously, the pension scheme is an element, but I am not aware that the entitlement of university lecturers is changing. Clearly, it is up to individual institutions to make themselves as attractive as possible to academic staff.

Baroness Andrews Portrait Baroness Andrews (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the noble Lord opposite asked a legitimate question—how poorer areas, which are benefiting hugely because they have universities in their midst, are likely to be affected if the number of overseas students drops and the university becomes in a more precarious and even more fragile state. This morning, on the radio, one university was cited as having a drop of 40% in its overseas students over the past year. How will that affect the university and the community it serves?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I think that the noble Baroness, on one level, knows the answer to her question, which is obviously that if there is less money going in, it will have a negative effect. But that is not the real question. The real question is: what are the Government doing to make sure that there is significant investment in those areas? There absolutely has been significant investment in all of the areas the noble Baroness cites, not just in relation to universities but also in colleges and institutes of technology, building the skills pipeline of the future.

Relationships, Sex and Health Education: Statutory Guidance

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Thursday 16th May 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement to the House setting out the Government’s proposals for updating the 2019 statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education, which my department has published today for consultation. I thank my department for its hard work in getting us to this point.

This Government have a plan to deliver a brighter future for Britain, one where families are supported and given the peace of mind that their children are safe and being equipped with the skills they need to succeed. Good relationships, sex and health education—RSHE—plays a key role in this. However, following disturbing reports from parents of pupils being taught inappropriate content in schools, and requests from schools which wanted more clarity on when to teach certain topics, the Prime Minister and I decided to bring forward the review of RSHE. We have listened to colleagues across government and the House, have gathered evidence from stakeholders and considered advice from an independent panel of experts who generously gave their time, experience and knowledge to support the review last year. I put on record my personal thanks to each individual panel member.

We need to make sure that the content of lessons is factual and appropriate and that children have the capacity to fully understand everything that they are being taught. We need to make sure that our children are prepared for the world in which they live, but not in a way that takes away the innocence of childhood. In short, we need to let our children be children. It is a fine line to tread and schools need clarity on how to approach it.

Overall, this guidance is underpinned by three core values: one, parents have a right to know what their children are being taught; two, teachers are there to teach children facts and not to push the agendas of campaign groups; three, schools should not teach about the contested issue of gender identity, including that gender is a spectrum.

There are five major policy changes that I would like to set out. The first is the introduction of age limits for teaching sensitive subjects. The purpose of the new age limits is to make sure that children are not taught things before they are ready to understand them. Informed by the advice of the independent panel and others, the guidance places specific age limits on the teaching of certain subjects.

In primary schools, children learn about the importance of boundaries and privacy and that they have rights over their own bodies, but no 10 year-old should be taught the details of intimate sexual acts, sexual harassment and sexual violence. In primary schools, sex education is not a requirement and should be introduced only from year 5 onwards. The content should align with the national curriculum’s science teachings on conception and birth, ensuring that it is rooted in fact. It should absolutely not be preparing primary-age children for sexual activity.

The second flagship change is complete openness with parents. Parents are their children’s first teachers and they must know what they are being taught. The guidance contains a new section that makes the need for transparency with parents crystal clear, and clarifies the scope within the law to share materials. The bottom line is that curriculum providers should not be seeking to hide their materials from parents. This practice is completely unacceptable; parents have a fundamental right to know what their children are being taught about healthy relationships, sex and development.

Thirdly, on teaching about gender reassignment, many schools have told us that they need clear guidance to help them teach about this highly sensitive, complex issue in a factual and safe way. We are making it absolutely clear that the contested topic of gender identity should not be taught in schools, at any age. Schools should not be providing classroom materials that, for example, include the view that gender is a spectrum.

While protected characteristics, such as gender reassignment, should be taught, they must be done on a factual basis, at an appropriate age, and not based on contested ideology. This reflects the cautious, common-sense approach that we have taken in our guidance on children questioning their gender, which also reflects the recommendations of the Cass review.

There is also a dedicated section on sexual harassment and sexual violence. The growth of malign influencers online, who pose a risk to children and young people, has been significant and is one of the key ways the world has changed for young people since this guidance was originally published and, indeed, since all of us were in school. This new section covers some specific types of abusive behaviour which were not previously discussed, such as stalking, as well as advice for teachers about how to address dangerous, misogynistic online influencers.

Now I would like to consider the sensitive but important issue of suicide prevention. Ministers and I have met bereaved families, experts and teachers to explore how suicide prevention could be taught as part of RSHE. I pay tribute to the incredible work of 3 Dads Walking, who have used the unimaginable tragedies in their lives to campaign for important change.

The current RSHE guidance already included content in relation to teaching pupils to look after their mental well-being and support themselves and their friends. We have now made clearer how this content on mental well-being relates to suicide prevention. Of course, the topic of suicide itself needs to be handled sensitively and skilfully, and not before pupils are ready to understand it. Obviously, children’s maturity varies, but our engagement suggested that children typically develop the necessary understanding from when they are in year 8. We have made sure that this updated guidance acknowledges that it can be important to discuss this with pupils, and we have added advice to set out how schools could address suicide prevention in their teaching.

Finally, the guidance also includes a new topic on personal safety. This includes additional content on understanding the laws around carrying knives and knife crime and the dangers of fire, roads, railways and water.

Together, I am confident that this guidance will give teachers and head teachers clarity over what should and should not be taught, provide parents with the peace of mind that their children are being taught in a safe and factual manner, and reassure everyone across society that pupils are being taught what they need to know at the right age and time in their lives. A copy of the guidance has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses. I commend this Statement to the House”.

--- Later in debate ---
Earl Russell Portrait Earl Russell (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in your Lordships’ House. If it is not broken, do not fix it: we on these Benches do not welcome most of these changes, which are politicised solutions that are mainly looking for a problem. Indeed, we fear that the net result will be to put our children and young people at greater risk.

The Government are choosing to water down the safeguarding of our children on the altar of yet another pointless culture war in the run-up to the general election—legislation for leaflets, I call it. Sex education, particularly in the early years, is not about teaching young people to have sex; it is about safeguarding. It is about teaching them to know what is appropriate, what is invasive, and what is abusive; it is about informed consent. Age-appropriate education is vital for empowerment of our young children, so they can live healthy and happy lives.

Where children are questioning their gender identity, they should be supported with open and inclusive discussions centred on their health and well-being. The Government should be careful what they wish for; it is better that appropriate support be provided in schools, because the only alternative is that perhaps inappropriate information will be sought elsewhere.

Finally, what actions have the Government taken to ensure that these changes do not pose greater safeguarding risks to our children and young people?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Earl for their remarks. I will start with the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The evidence we have heard from parents, schoolteachers and school leaders is that the lack of transparency with parents about what their children were being taught, and the teaching of contested material, in particular on gender identity, were very broken. Those are essential things that need fixing.

I turn to safeguarding, which both the noble Baroness and the noble Earl rightly raised. The noble Baroness said that school is a very important safeguarding agency and that talking about some issues gives children an opportunity to disclose and therefore to respond. The guidance is very clear on how to deal with safeguarding issues.

When we turn to the age-appropriate approach, which I think the noble Baroness agrees with, we see there is something about giving children this information in stages. They do not need all of it when they are very young. It must be phased and age-appropriate. In relation to menstruation specifically, the new guidance sets out that children should be taught about puberty, including menstruation, no earlier than year four, so that would be when children are eight or nine. That means that the majority of children will learn about puberty before it happens to them.

The noble Baroness talked about the importance of relationships education and different types of relationship. That is clearly set out in the curriculum we are consulting on, but the focus will be very much on the facts. For example, the protected characteristics will be clearly taught. Gender reassignment will be clearly taught as a factual thing that happens to adults. The noble Baroness raised the issue of school leaders. The guidance is out for consultation, so there is every opportunity for leaders and teachers to contribute to the consultation, and we would welcome that. She will also be aware that our expert panel included experts from the education system, as well as from health, in particular. I think that also addresses the question asked by the noble Earl about whether we have assessed whether we could increase the safeguarding risk. I hope the safeguarding risk does not stem from school, but I think the noble Earl means the ability to identify. Those issues were considered very carefully by the expert panel.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The process in terms of timing is that the guidance is out for consultation. Then we will finalise it and, when it is finally published, schools will have a period in which to implement the new guidance. However, I think it is fair to say that the direction of travel is extremely clear and those key principles about communication and transparency with parents, teaching the facts and not contested ideologies and that content should be delivered in an age-appropriate way are very clear, and I am sure that the vast majority of schools welcome that clarity. Given that the guidance is statutory, schools must have regard to it and can deviate from it only with good reason. In terms of enforcement—on holding schools to account on this—Ofsted, as part of its personal development judgment, will consider whether schools are teaching RSHE in line with the statutory guidance.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I welcome this Statement and the change it will bring. The provider of some teaching materials called Pop’n’Olly says he has spoken to 100,000 children and told them about gender identity. I looked at the material. It explains that Olly is able to choose whether he is male, female, non-binary or another sex. Can the Minister assure us that that sort of teaching material will no longer be in any school in any authority under this Government?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am delighted to reassure the noble Baroness that she is right.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, in relation to the point that the noble Baroness raised about resources and materials, it is the usual policy of this Government that you outline content and then allow teachers to choose how they teach that and what resources they use—except of course for phonics, on which there is little discretion. Oak National Academy is going to be producing resources, and I note that here these are called “compliant resources”. Could my noble friend the Minister outline the timeline for it to produce those resources so that, when the regulations change, teachers know they are using resources that are appropriate for children?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I thank my noble friend for her question. She is right that Oak National Academy is collaborating with Life Lessons Education to develop new relationships and health education in primary and relationships and sexual health curriculum in secondary. That will be made available in full from autumn 2025.

Lord Russell of Liverpool Portrait Lord Russell of Liverpool (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare my interest as a governor of Coram, and for 24 years I was the chair of the largest provider of health education to primary schools in the country. It is extremely pertinent that the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, is in his place because, when the Minister has heard the question I will pose, she may wish to spend some time with him.

The independent expert panel that assisted the department is notable for the absence of anybody who is an expert on online safety. It is as if the department is unaware that we spent a great deal of the last year on what became the Online Safety Act, looking in great detail at the protection of children. We say the purpose of the new age limits is to make sure that children are not taught things before they are ready to understand them, but does the Minister not accept that the problem is that children are seeing things that they do not understand and at the moment will not be able to discuss in school or ask their teacher about? They are also unlikely to ask their parents about it. Some 25% of children under the age of nine have smartphones, while a large proportion of under-11 year-olds are, illegally, using WhatsApp. This is the reality. This is the innocent childhood that the children of today are experiencing; it is not the childhood that we had. So I beseech the Minister to work closely with the team that has done huge work on the Online Safety Act, and with the people at Ofcom who are drawing the code together, to make sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, preferably with a brain in between.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

Luckily, since we are talking about officials, I can confidently say that the right and left hands know what they are doing and there is definitely more than one brain in between. In all seriousness, I would be very happy to meet with the noble Lord once he has had a chance to look at the content of the new curriculum. I hope he will be reassured by the extent to which it acknowledges the issues to which he refers around online risks to children.

There is of course nothing to stop any parent talking to their children about risks online; indeed, I think we all hope that parents would be doing that. This also does not prevent children asking questions in the classroom or more privately to a teacher. None of this prevents the asking of questions about a child’s curiosity or worries; it just ensures that it is age appropriate in the way that it is delivered at the front of the classroom—and I hope the noble Lord supports the Government’s move to ban mobile phones in schools.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

On the point that the Minister has just raised about what happens if a child brings a problem to a teacher, rather than a teacher addressing the problem with the child, is she confident that it will be clear to teachers, once the guidance is up and running and embedded, that they are not prohibited from having conversations with children who have encountered, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, has mentioned, things online that they certainly should not have encountered, but they have, and they need to talk to somebody about it? I am sorry to mention this but, going back over quarter of a century to the days of Section 28, whatever the letter of the law may have been, many people felt they were not able to have these discussions without running the risk of being on the wrong side of the law. I hope the Minister will agree that it is important that teachers are not unintentionally inhibited from having the very conversations that they need to have.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The noble Baroness makes, as ever, an important point in thinking about the reality in the classroom for teachers. I suppose I would say a few things about that. First, that is why we are so grateful to our expert panel for bringing their expertise and judgment into the shape of the new guidance. Secondly, there is absolutely discretion for teachers, so if they identify a particular problem, it is clear that they can talk to their class about it. But they need to let parents know and to share the materials that they plan to use, and it needs to be age-appropriate. In relation to whether this is a new Section 28—I think the noble Baroness was giving it as an example, rather than suggesting that is where we are going—again, it is absolutely clear that teachers must teach at the right age about protected characteristics, sexual orientation and gender reassignment but, simply, they must stick to the facts.

Lord Polak Portrait Lord Polak (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, while I warmly welcome this Statement, while of course I have not read everything I would like to follow up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool. During our consideration of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, we were able to hear from a young lady called Poppy Eyre. She gave her evidence, which was very moving. The problem was that she was being abused at home by her grandfather from the age of six. My worry is that, if everything is so black and white, we will have another problem. Let us turn it round: perhaps the abuse that she was receiving, which she talked about only once she was 11, could have been curtailed at an earlier stage, so I am just worried about babies and bath-water. So that I am clear, I think it is being suggested that above the age of nine there will be some sort of sex education. Will parents be consulted on that too? If a majority of parents in the primary school do not want that to happen, will it then not happen?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

In relation to the very disturbing case that my noble friend cited, of course, primary school children are taught from a very young age about their personal safety, the safety of their bodies and the boundaries that should be respected. That is perhaps the age-appropriate way for such issues, we believe, to give a child like the one my noble friend mentioned a chance to talk to an adult safely and for the abuse that she suffers to be addressed. In relation to sex education in primary schools, parents cannot veto the curriculum. What we are saying is that parents have a right to see the curriculum and, of course, in primary parents also have a right to withdraw their children from sex education, if they so wish.

Baroness Barker Portrait Baroness Barker (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Statement says that this is about teaching children facts, not pushing the agendas of campaign groups. With that in mind, will the Minister provide details of the groups which lobbied for this change? The Government will of course have done due diligence, so she can give us details of their ideology and funding? Can she say what meetings Ministers and their advisers had with the representatives of those groups? Could she also give details of contact between Ministers and advisers and the EHRC on this matter?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I may need to follow up in writing. I think it is important to put on record that this guidance was pulled together by an independent panel. I am sure the noble Baroness is not questioning the integrity of that panel. I would like to reiterate that they have brought great expertise to this, and we have followed their advice. There is nothing ideological in this. It is dealing with facts rather than ideology.

Lord Hampton Portrait Lord Hampton (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare an interest as somebody who has delivered quite a lot of sex and relationships education lessons. I welcome a lot of what is going on here. I think particularly that teaching about suicide, the hidden male killer, is really important. The Minister said that children develop the necessary understanding from year 8, yet there seems to be a lot we are just not going to talk to them about ever. The timing of teaching on puberty will be before most girls have had their first period. Why not before every girl has had their first period? How scary is that going to be?

Teachers are best placed to know their form. Teaching is usually done with your form, who you know very well. A question bounced off can be answered straight away and you know the age-appropriateness of your answer. To start giving age ranges of 15 to 18, for example, is extremely dangerous. We have to be very careful about this because, sadly, some parents have some very weird views.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am not quite sure what to say about parents with weird views. As long as they are legal, I guess we have to roll with it—’twas ever thus.

It is possible that the noble Lord misunderstood what I said in the Statement about year 8. Year 8 is the age from which most children have the emotional maturity to learn about suicide prevention. There are different age limits in the guidance, which I know the noble Lord will enjoy getting familiar with.

In relation to menstruation, as I said in response to the initial question from the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, children should not be taught about menstruation earlier than year 4. Most children will be taught from the age of eight or nine. For the vast majority of girls that will be, as the noble Lord suggests, before they start menstruating.

On the limits being dangerous, I feel that the noble Lord used quite a strong word. I do not think for a second that the Government are trying to second-guess the ability of teachers to judge what is age-appropriate for their class. As I said earlier, in a circumstance where a teacher feels strongly that it is important to teach something, as long as they are transparent with parents about it, and as long as there is transparency around the materials and they are age-appropriate, then there is a degree of flexibility for teachers to do that. Many schools and teachers asked us for clarity around age-appropriate boundaries, and that was also the advice of the expert panel.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine Portrait Baroness Falkner of Margravine (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I will turn to that, but first I would like to ask a question in my personal capacity. It is to do with the guidance and the comment that refers to contractual obligations of companies which provide training material. I think the Minister told us that those clauses will not be enforceable. Recognising that commercial interests are engaged in the enforceability of some aspects of those clauses, could she elaborate on how they intend to clarify that?

Turning to the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there seems to be some confusion in this Chamber. To save public servants time and money, perhaps I could explain to some quarters of this Chamber that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a statutory duty under the Equality Act 2010 to advise the Government. However, as far as I know, on this occasion it has not yet engaged. It looks forward to doing so in response to the consultation.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I thank the noble Baroness for clarifying that point. In relation to contractual obligations, she is aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has written twice now to schools clarifying the position on copyright and intellectual property. The simple way through this is that schools should not engage and use third-party providers of materials where copyright presents an issue or where their perception of their copyright rights is a block to transparency with parents, which we believe is the overriding principle.

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Portrait Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, on behalf of the many parents who have been in touch with me and with many other Members of this House, I welcome this Statement. It has been an extremely widespread problem. I have seen, as I am sure the Minister has, many of the materials being taught as fact, many of which are extremely disturbing. Will my noble friend consider the immediate removal of some of the contested materials, pending the final guidance being published?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I understand and have a lot of sympathy with the question my noble friend raises. All I can say at this stage is that this guidance, and the consultation which follows, is sending a very clear message both to schools and to parents. Of course, the autumn term is a good time for many schools to think about when they might refresh their curriculum, and, as I said to my noble friend Lady Berridge, in the autumn term of next year we will have the full suite of materials from Oak. Similarly, this is an important message to give parents peace of mind, and I hope very much for all concerned that the conversations they can have with schools can change now.

Skills: Importance for the UK Economy and Quality of Life

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Thursday 9th May 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords across the Chamber for their contributions. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, for securing this very important and well-supported debate. It was an honour to be present to hear the maiden speeches of my noble friends Lord Marks of Hale and Lord Elliott of Mickle Fell. Listening to a maiden speech reminds us all just what a privilege it is to serve in your Lordships’ House.

If I may, I will step back and remind noble Lords what the Government are looking to achieve with our overall programme of skills reform. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, started by talking about the need for a strategy. I hope he recognises many, if not all, of the seven points in his speech in the Government’s approach.

The Skills for Jobs White Paper, published in January 2021, is the blueprint for our reforms. It sets out the case for change and the vital need to drive up skills in our country. We know that a third of productivity growth can be attributed to increases in skills levels. I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lord Baker for his work over many years to bring a focus to the skills agenda. But we still face significant gaps in skills at higher technical levels, with level 4/5 being the highest qualification for 10% of adults, compared to 20% in Germany and 34% in Canada. 

My noble friend Lord Patten was absolutely right to highlight the importance of improving productivity in the public sector as well, and my noble friend Lord Holmes was right to stress the importance of inclusivity and innovation in developing skills programmes.

The gaps in our skills are creating significant challenges in the labour market. As we heard from a number of noble Lords, employers report that they cannot find people with the skills they need, particularly the technical skills that drive innovation and enable adoption of new technologies. I acknowledge the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, regarding foreign languages, but I may need to address some of them in writing.

As it stands, a quarter of job vacancies in the UK are due to skills shortages. Some estimates show that, by 2030, we will face a global skills shortage of 85 million. There are major challenges for the future, as we know from research published by the department’s Unit for Future Skills, which estimates that between 10% and 30% of jobs could be automated through AI. The significance of AI was brought out powerfully by my noble friend Lady Fairhead. That is why we have introduced a series of reforms, with the aim of developing a world-leading skills system that is employer-focused and fit for the future. This is backed by an investment of £3.8 billion over the course of this Parliament to strengthen higher and further education. The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, spoke about the need for stability in the skills system. Probably the strongest thing we hear from employers is that they want stability so they can plan and invest.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, asked about opportunities for lifelong learning. I remind her of the important lifelong learning entitlement, which will transform opportunities to upskill, reskill and develop skills throughout one’s lifetime.

I will divide my remaining remarks into three broad categories, focusing on an employer-led skills system, our support for priority growth sectors, and the reform of qualifications. I hope that addresses the spirit of the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, about looking at this issue in the round and not in a fragmented way.

As the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, said more eloquently than I can, employers need to be at the heart of our skills system. The Government have worked hard to bring education and business together so that skills and training provision directly support economic growth and productivity. The Government are proud of their new high-quality apprenticeship programme. Nearly 700 apprenticeship standards are now available, covering around 70% of occupations in this country. The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked about the drop in the number of apprenticeships. I think he knows what I am going to say: we focused very much on quality, so we took out apprenticeships that did not deliver for apprentices. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that I am not sure what changing the name of the apprenticeship levy achieves, but I think that Labour’s proposals are estimated to halve the number of apprenticeships, which would have a very serious impact on our economy.

I thank my noble friend Lord Harrington for acknowledging the value of the apprenticeship levy. I will address some of his concerns, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, about reform of the levy. We already pay 100% of the apprenticeship training costs for 16 to 21 year-olds in respect of SMEs. We have also doubled the levy transfer limit from 25% to 50% so that levy payers can maximise the benefit of their levy funds.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wolf, gave us her expert insight into the importance of level 3 apprenticeships. As she is aware, they are the most popular apprenticeships, accounting for 43.3% of starts in the current academic year. We now have 229 apprenticeships standards at level 3 and an active apprenticeships campaign promoting both level 2 and level 3 apprenticeships.

My noble friend Lord Harrington noted the importance of manufacturing apprenticeships. The Government are investing £50 million in a two-year pilot to support providers to deliver more high-value apprenticeships, particularly in areas such as engineering, advanced manufacturing, green technologies and life sciences.

My noble friend Lord Lucas talked about the importance of micro-credentials. He will be aware that we have introduced skills bootcamps, which provide flexible training for adults aged 19 and over, which are directly linked to roles in priority sectors. These, again, were courses that were designed and delivered in partnership with employers to respond to their needs. There are now more than 1,000 skills bootcamps available across England.

Turning to the local skills improvement plans, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, for her leadership in this area. I was glad to hear how important and innovative that direct link is—if I followed her remarks correctly—between business, higher education and further education, just getting people in the room together to work out what an area needs.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked about oversight of the LSIPs. The employer representative bodies are now leading on implementation and review of the plans, and each of those bodies will publish a public annual progress report in June 2024 and June 2025, setting out their progress.

We also think the introduction of institutes of technology is extremely important. They are collaborations between colleges, universities and business, designed to deliver the best technical education and help businesses to get the workforce they need. We will have 21 of these new institutes in place from September.

The noble Lord, Lord Mair, said that—I hope I wrote this down correctly—20% of adults in Germany have higher technical qualifications, and that this is an important gap in our skills landscape. That is why we have introduced HTQs to meet exactly that need at levels 4 and 5. They have a quality mark that is awarded only to those qualifications that deliver the skills employers need. That also speaks to the point about recognition of qualifications that the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, referred to. To date, 172 qualifications have been approved as HTQs across seven routes. The Government have also sought to prioritise five sectors that are critical to driving our growth in the 21st century: green industries, digital technologies, life sciences, creative industries, and advanced manufacturing.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Hayman and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, and the noble Lord, Lord Mair, all talked about the importance of green industries. The net-zero growth plan sets out how the Department for Education is empowering people to get skills for green jobs, but this challenge is a very significant one, whether it be in relation to workers in offshore wind or, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, used as an example, in relation to heat pumps. We are funding a range of apprenticeship standards in green occupations, including level 4 electrical power networks engineering and new low-carbon heating technician apprenticeships. We also have T-levels to support this area in construction engineering and land management.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, asked about the nature action plan. On timing, the technical answer is “soon” but not “in due course”—that is the good news. We have made a public commitment that it will be published in the first half of this year, and that public commitment still stands. I think that is “soon”.

Digital technologies are a foundation for our economy, but 18% of the UK labour force do not have the essential digital skills that they need for work. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, asked about cross-departmental working. As an example, we are working closely with DSIT to convene the Digital and Computing Skills Education Taskforce, aiming to increase the number of individuals taking digital and computing qualifications and attracting people into digital jobs. We have invested over £100 million in the National Centre for Computing Education, to improve teaching of and participation in computer science GCSE and A-level.

I recognise very much, in my noble friend Lady Fairhead’s comments about AI, the pace of change and the difficulty in government to stay ahead of the curve. I hope the House agrees that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has given great leadership in the area of ethical AI and safety in AI. My colleagues in the department are also making great progress, and I look forward to being able to update the House on some of those activities in due course.

The third area of focus is on life sciences. The UK life sciences industry is one of the largest in the world, with the potential to create up to 133,000 new roles in 2030. Through the Office for Life Sciences, my department is working with employers and industry bodies to identify and address skills challenges.

The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, talked about the importance of the creative industries. This is one of the fastest growing sectors of the UK economy, and we have clearly set out the Government’s ambition—shared with industry—to support a million new jobs through education and skills objectives, in our creative industries sector vision. We have developed 57 creative and design occupational standards and we have more flexible training models to support apprenticeships in the creative industries, where short-term contracts or other non-standard employment models are the norm.

Finally, our fifth area of strategic focus is on advanced manufacturing. Manufacturing provides 2.6 million jobs in the economy—7% of total employment—but there are currently 70,000 vacancies. Our plan sets out our ambition to establish an advanced manufacturing skills forum with the National Manufacturing Skills Taskforce. Again, this is supported by skills bootcamps and T-levels, to create a pipeline of skilled workers.

I turn to our qualification reform, which was a subject of interest for my noble friends Lord Willetts and Lord Lingfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Garden. As the House knows from our debates on this subject during the passage of the skills Bill, we aim to fund only qualifications that are of the highest quality and lead to good progression outcomes. T-levels are delivering fantastic results for those 16 to 19 year-olds across the country. I encourage my noble friend Lord Lingfield to perhaps meet some of those students with me, because they are delighted by their courses. Over 30,000 young people have now enrolled on a T-level since their launch four years ago, with roughly 16,000 enrolling in the last year.

My noble friend Lord Willetts asked some very specific questions about the precise number of qualifications that will have funding removed and the number of students taking them. I will cover some of those points now, but I will also write to him and put a copy of my letter in the Library, because this is a slightly complex area. We have not yet finished all our decision-making on the funding of qualifications, but we have published the number of courses and enrolments, rather than students, where either funding is being removed or we are considering it, and I will put the links to that information in my letter.

As the House knows, we are removing public funding from qualifications in phases. The first phase was for 5,500 qualifications, which had either no or very low enrolments. The second phase is for the removal of funding from qualifications that overlap with T-levels. The final phase relates to our approval process through which alternative academic qualifications must go to be funded from September 2025.

On the second phase—the removal of funding from qualifications that overlap with T-levels—waves 1 and 2 covered about 130 qualifications and about 39,000 enrolments. Within that, there were 10 qualifications that had more than 1,000 enrolments. Wave 3 covered 85 qualifications with 17,000 enrolments, and there were five qualifications with more than 1,000 enrolments. Wave 4 is expected to cover around 70 qualifications and 32,000 enrolments, of which nine qualifications had more than 1,000 enrolments. I raise the point about the relatively small number of qualifications with large numbers of enrolments because my noble friend Lord Lingfield talked about T-levels being too complicated, but the existing system is extremely complicated. We want to bring simplicity and clarity to the quality of the qualifications that young people are undertaking.

The final reason why I would like to write to my noble friend, rather than try to explain this in any more detail at the Dispatch Box, is that T-levels are very large courses covering a variety of occupational specialisms and lasting two years. The qualifications being defunded are of different sizes; some can be very small, and one person could take several enrolments. The enrolment data for older-style qualifications cannot be directly compared with T-levels, which are much larger. I assure my noble friend and the House that students will continue to have a range of options available to them at level 3, in addition to A-levels and T-levels, including new technical occupational qualifications and alternative academic qualifications, helping to ensure that all students have a range of options. Each one of those will have employer standards and occupational standards at its heart.

Lord Willetts Portrait Lord Willetts (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to the Minister for the full answer she has already given. Can she give her assurance that the measure of enrolments, which I understand is not the same as the number of students, going back to the baseline that I referred to, will be in her letter to me?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- Hansard - -

It will.

I turn to the wider points raised about the curriculum by my noble friends Lady Sater and Lord Effingham, the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty. To critics of the curriculum, I say as a starting point that we work very closely with the Education Endowment Foundation, which gives a robust, highly respected and independent evidence base about all the reforms that we have undertaken, so there is nothing ideological in what we are doing in our schools. It is based on the best available evidence, including randomised control trials and other similarly robust approaches.

I absolutely agree with the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, that it is a bit artificial to separate knowledge and skills; it is the combination of the two that is powerful. I agree with my noble friend Lady Sater about the importance of confidence and agility, but we believe those are based in a knowledge-rich curriculum that fosters competence and mastery in a subject. I may have to include my response about storming the barricades with the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, in my letter. All I can say at this point is that it sounds an interesting option.

In relation to my noble friend Lord Effingham’s question regarding prohibition of phones, if additional evidence emerges that they are a problem—we know that most schools already prohibit phones in some way—we will seek to make our guidance statutory. The noble Baroness, Lady Valentine, emphasised the importance of careers. I remind the House that in the financial year 2024-25 we are investing more than £90 million in high-quality careers provision for all.

I am running out of time. My last point is to acknowledge the point made by my noble friend Lord Lilley that the Government cannot make a success of these skills reforms on their own. Employers must also do more to support the development of workforce skills. We have seen employer investment in training fall by 7.8% in real terms between 2017 and 2022. As my noble friend said, we must move away from reliance on migration to fill skills gaps and towards investment in the skills of our domestic workforce.

Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

At the beginning of her speech, the Minister said—I have not heard a Minister say it before—that the forecast of the skills gap in 2030 is hundreds of millions, if not billions. It is absolutely extraordinary, and our education system as presently constituted cannot possibly meet it. I gave her forewarning of this in my speech: will she consider the proposal that has been put to her to insert into ordinary schools in the UK a technical sleeve, known as a UTC sleeve? We have 10 schools that want to do it and applications have been made to her, but there has been no reaction at all from the Department for Education. When will she be in a position to give approval to this? Will it be before the next election?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- Hansard - -

The skills gap numbers that I cited were in relation to global skills gaps. The point I was making was that this is not a uniquely UK problem in relation to skills; it is a global problem. As the noble Lord knows, his correspondence with the department is the responsibility of another Minister. I understand that it is under consideration.

Period Poverty

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Verma Portrait Baroness Verma
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the scale of period poverty.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the Government do not have specific data on period poverty, but we understand that women and girls are impacted by the cost of period products. That is why we abolished the so-called tampon tax and ensured that period underwear receives the same zero rate of VAT. We have a scheme for schools and colleges, with free products available for all who need them so that periods are not a barrier to education. All hospital patients can also receive free products.

Baroness Verma Portrait Baroness Verma (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register, as chair of Empower and of UN Women UK. I thank my noble friend the Minister for the scheme that she mentioned. Will she confirm that it will continue post election in a new Government? It is critical that young females get access to sanitary products throughout their school life. Secondly, what discussions are taking place with retailers on reducing the cost of sanitary products, particularly for low-income households where there may be multiple female house- holders?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

With regard to the first part of my noble friend’s question, we are aware of how important the scheme is in schools, with 99% of secondary schools having placed an order since it began. The current formulation of the scheme is planned up to summer 2024, but I know that the department is in the process of confirming plans for its future. On our work with retailers, we were concerned when we abolished the tampon tax on sanitary products that not all of that benefit was passed on to consumers. That is why we are monitoring the impact on reusable period underwear, which is also now zero-rated for VAT, and making sure that that is passed on.

Baroness Thornton Portrait Baroness Thornton (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the Minister and the Government for the scheme in our secondary schools; we have 99% take-up, so we can safely say that it is important and welcome. However, period poverty affects one in five women across the UK. Given the cost of living and the rise in prices, it is a health and gender-based injustice, with increasing numbers struggling to afford what is an essential healthcare product. The Government agreed to work collaboratively with a range of organisations to create a period poverty taskforce in 2019, but the group has not met since the pandemic. Does it intend to resume, and if so, when? Secondly, how does the programme for secondary schools deal with school holidays?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am more than happy to follow up with the department on the noble Baroness’s first point, and I will respond to her in writing about our plans to meet the group she referred to. With regard to school holidays, the House will be aware of the Government’s enormous support for people on lower incomes, which is, obviously, available to all families during the holidays.

Lord Ranger of Northwood Portrait Lord Ranger of Northwood (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, on this day I am sure that the House will remember the tireless campaigner, Kris Hallenga, who had breast cancer and passed away recently. She set up the charity, CoppaFeel!, which reached out to millions using her creativity, sense of fun and ingenuity to ensure that young women were made aware of and took on the challenges of breast cancer. She was diagnosed at the age of 23 and given a life expectancy of two years, but survived cancer for 15 years. Could we take a leaf out of Kris’s book in looking to engage young women on the issue of period poverty, using social media and channels that can reach them so that we help them engage and listen to them?

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My noble friend makes a good and poignant point about talking to young people in their own language and on their own terms and, as he says, using social media to reach them. We know that part of the issue with period poverty and wider women’s health matters may be a financial one that is a barrier to accessing products, but equally if not more important is the stigma associated with raising issues like this, which we need to try to remove as quickly as possible.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, according to the pressure group Bloody Good Period, in the workplace, two-thirds of people who menstruate do not have access to the basic essentials they need, costing British industry £3.3 billion in lost workdays. We often feel a bit squeamish talking about these matters, but what will the Government do to make employers aware of the inequality that so many of their employees face, and of how easily and cheaply productivity could be increased?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The department is well aware that women in the workplace miss extra days of work, suffer pain and stay in the workplace in considerable discomfort. Our experience is that employers often want to help but are not always very confident about how to do so, be it period-related or menopause-related issues. We are working with a range of businesses and professional membership bodies to identify how employers can best support women’s wider reproductive health and share their good practice.

Baroness Smith of Llanfaes Portrait Baroness Smith of Llanfaes (PC)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, we should be steering away from the idea that we need to address only period poverty, but instead provide period dignity for all, which would also address period poverty. What I mean by period dignity is achieving parity with toilet paper: wherever toilet paper is provided by the public or private sector, period products should also be provided in the cubicle. Have the Government carried out any research on best practice in other countries on how to provide period dignity for all?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am not aware that we have done international research in this area, but I am aware, as I mentioned in my initial Answer, that in schools, hospitals and prisons now there is free access to period products. Many workplaces offer that also.

Baroness Goldie Portrait Baroness Goldie (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am not often given to commending the Scottish Government, but as your Lordships may be aware, particularly the ladies present, they have introduced a universal system to try to address both period poverty and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, rightly says, period dignity. I wonder if there would be any benefit in a constructive engagement with the Scottish Government to understand how their scheme works, what it costs and if there are any lessons to be learned.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The department works regularly with the devolved Administrations, and we are always happy to learn from others.

Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge Portrait Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, 16.7 million sick days are taken annually due to period-related symptoms. What are the Government doing to encourage more scientific research in this area, in order to help the 47% of women who suffer from severe period pain every month?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

Last month, the National Institute for Health and Care Research announced more than £100 million of funding to 20 policy research units, including a new unit dedicated to reproductive health. This will undertake research on a number of areas, including menstrual health, gynaecological conditions and the menopause. In addition, the Office for National Statistics is also planning to investigate the impact of period problems and endometriosis on women’s participation and progress at work.

Lord Cashman Portrait Lord Cashman (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, may I ask the Government to undertake an educational programme for young men and boys—and, indeed, older men—on period pain and period poverty?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

We already have a programme, called RSHE, which every child will follow and that absolutely speaks to the noble Lord’s point. The current statutory guidance makes it clear that all pupils should be taught the facts about the menstrual cycle, and we have developed a series of teacher training modules to support schools in delivering this.

Faith Schools: Impact of Removing Admissions Cap

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, the admissions cap has not significantly increased the diversity of intake in faith-designated free schools, and it has prevented providers such as the Catholic Church, which attracts a more diverse intake, opening new schools. All faith-designated free schools are required to demonstrate their commitment to community cohesion and how they promote fundamental British values.

Baroness Burt of Solihull Portrait Baroness Burt of Solihull (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, this policy would increase religious discrimination in schools that the British taxpayer is paying for. Many parents will be paying for local schools from which their own children will be excluded. It will diminish diversity and inclusiveness, increase racial segregation and further disadvantage poorer families, non-religious families, and families of the “wrong” religion. It is hard to find an upside to this, so why are the Government proposing such a retrograde step when they supported the 50% cap until only a short time ago?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The Government do not see it as a retrograde step and I do not accept the description that the noble Baroness makes of our faith schools, which are extremely inclusive, many working with other schools in their local area, and which produce some of the best academic results in the country.

Lord Baker of Dorking Portrait Lord Baker of Dorking (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that it has never been Tory policy to advocate 100% faith schools? No Tory Education Secretary since 1945 has advocated them. They have preferred the model of the Church of England schools, which welcome children of no faith and all faiths. Indeed, I went to such a school myself during the war; my primary school was Holy Trinity in Southport, which was a community school. It so happened that my closest friend at that school was the single Jewish boy, who was a refugee. We became very close friends. I learned from then on that Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus at school should all study alongside each other, play with each other, eat with each other and go home with each other as members of a multicultural society.

Does the Minister realise that, if this goes through, it will be not only Catholics but Muslims who apply for independent, free faith schools. Does she really consider that appropriate in our country at this time in our history? This is an absurd proposal and it should not feature in any way in the manifesto of the Conservative Party at the election.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

With the greatest respect to my noble friend, I think there may be a slight misunderstanding, so it might perhaps help the House if I explain what the Government are proposing. They are proposing to make no change whatever to existing schools, faith schools and non-faith schools. The 6,700 faith schools that exist today will not be affected by what is proposed. What is proposed is a consultation on whether there should be a restriction on free schools—new schools—that are opened with a faith designation. So far, 95 such schools have opened.

Lord Alton of Liverpool Portrait Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I welcome the removing of the admissions cap and the explanation the Minister has given to the House. Will she firmly rebut the erroneous idea that these schools fail to promote integration, diversity and cohesion and confirm that they are the most ethnically diverse in the country? In England, 45.5% of their pupils are from ethnic minorities, compared with 37% in the state sector, and 50% of the pupils educated in those schools are from the most deprived backgrounds.

Perhaps I may share with the noble Baroness the work of the Liverpool John Moores University’s foundation for citizenship, which I founded. We saw outstanding examples of schools promoting virtues, values, duties, responsibilities and the wider common good. The Government’s decision to build on those achievements and prevent such schools having to turn away members of their own community is to be greatly welcomed. I know that many in the country will do so.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I thank the noble Lord for his comments and echo his remarks about the ethnic diversity in our faith schools. I agree with him that faith schools can and do offer the very important tenets of our major religions including, of course, tolerance.

Baroness Twycross Portrait Baroness Twycross (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the rationale behind the proposed change to the state-funded faith schools admissions cap by the Government is in large part, as the noble Baroness has said, to increase the number of school places available. Has the department made any estimate of how many more places will be made available and when? What will the Government do to ensure that school places are established where they are needed most and for families whose children most desperately need the best start in life?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The number of additional places will depend on levels of basic need where there are not enough school places available. The noble Baroness well knows that in some parts of the country we have the opposite challenge at the moment. That also answers the second part of her question; it will be where there are population pressures.

I would like to take the opportunity in answering the noble Baroness’s question to pick up on the second part of the consultation. If agreed, it would mean that faith schools were able to have a faith designation. I know the House agrees with me that we need to move faster to make sure there is provision for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Lord Bishop of St Albans Portrait The Lord Bishop of St Albans
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, Church of England schools will continue our long tradition of seeking to serve the common good and welcoming a huge diversity of people; we are glad to do that. The Minister has spoken about the huge problem of there not being enough special educational needs places. If I have understood this correctly, it means that this will be a new possibility. We in the Church of England would be keen to play our part to help with this, but one issue is the funding available for it, which makes it very difficult to offer. Alongside this announcement, what consideration have His Majesty’s Government given to providing additional funding for those SEND places, which we hope can release more energy into that deprived area?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

To be clear, and to avoid upsetting my noble friend Lord Baker one more time, the changes we are proposing in relation to special schools will not affect eligibility. Eligibility for a place in a special school will be dependent on a child’s education, health and care plan. The Government fund all the capital costs associated with developing a new free school. The funding is provided through the local authority for children with an education, health and care plan.

Baroness Berridge Portrait Baroness Berridge (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, should we not be proud that the new schools that we have opened since 2010 include Muslim, Hindu and Sikh faith-based schools, which were the first in the country, as well as additional Church of England schools? Can my noble friend the Minister confirm that, in line with previous suggestions for changing the admissions arrangements for new free schools, what is proposed is just that the admissions criteria that apply to existing Catholic schools will be the same for a new Catholic free school? There will be no change to the admissions policy for Catholic schools; it would just be the same policy across the board.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am very happy to confirm that.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister will know that we are developing, one hopes, a successful, multicultural society, with children of different faiths and none having the opportunity to learn and work and play together. Does she not think it important that in all our faith schools there should be children of different faiths?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The vast majority of our faith schools have children of different faiths. It is typically only in schools for the smallest-minority faiths that one has a concentration of children of those faiths. This is a longer debate that I am happy to have with the noble Lord, but parental choice is fundamental. We are very pleased to see the volume of activity that faith schools undertake with other faith schools of different denominations.

Higher Education: Arts and Humanities

Baroness Barran Excerpts
Wednesday 1st May 2024

(2 months, 3 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Watch Debate Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

To ask His Majesty’s Government, following recent announcements of proposed university staff cuts, what steps they are taking to support the study of the arts and humanities in higher education.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, we recognise the importance of the creative and performing arts to our economy. While some higher education providers have seen decreases in arts and humanities staff, academic staff numbers across England rose by 1.9% between 2019-20 and 2022-23 to 21,640.

Earl of Clancarty Portrait The Earl of Clancarty (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, Gillian Keegan’s freezing of further funding for creative arts courses at universities, which has occurred since I tabled this Question, is surely pouring oil on already extremely troubled waters. We have a Government who seem wilfully blind to both the current threat to the arts at universities and the strategic importance of that pipeline. Will they reconsider that funding decision and take steps to protect the jobs and departments at Goldsmiths, Middlesex, Kent and elsewhere that are so necessary for the creative and economic future of this country?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

We absolutely agree with the noble Earl that high-quality provision across a range of subjects in the arts and humanities is critical both for our cultural enrichment as a society and for our workforce. That is why we require the Office for Students to at least maintain funding for those high-cost subjects at the current level of £16.7 million. As the noble Earl is also aware, we have dedicated funding for both our world-leading cultural institutions and other performing arts institutions.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe Portrait Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the cap on student fees has meant that funding for students is at its lowest level in over 25 years. There is a £1 billion hole in domestic teaching funding, which will inevitably mean some very difficult decisions, as my noble friend indicated. Does the Minister agree that arts and humanities graduates have the creative and critical thinking essential for problem solving, which will be crucial to support businesses to get the most out of AI tools?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

As the noble Baroness knows, the Government strive to create a sustainable student finance system that both remains responsive to the needs of the wider economy and of the labour market, which she referred to, and is fair to students and taxpayers. As she remarked, those with creative and critical-thinking skills in relation to AI are of course important, but so are students with STEM skills.

Lord Johnson of Marylebone Portrait Lord Johnson of Marylebone (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, ahead of the local and mayoral elections tomorrow, would my noble friend the Minister say what the impact of slashing the graduate route will be on arts and humanities provision, as well as on the levelling- up agenda? I am thinking specifically about towns such as Middlesbrough and Darlington, where every intake of international students at Teesside University brings £240 million of benefits each year to the local economy.

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My noble friend is aware that we remain absolutely committed to our international education strategy, which has been extremely successful in terms of both the number of students who study in this country and their contribution to the economy. I cannot comment on the specifics of individual towns, but we absolutely recognise the value that those students bring.

Lord Storey Portrait Lord Storey (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Minister quite rightly pointed out the importance of the arts to our cultural and creative industries, but they are also important to soft power. We are seeing 15 universities making job cuts in their arts and humanities departments and 35 others considering it. I do not need to go through the individual universities, but drama, film, music, dance and entire theatre departments are at risk. Two problems need to be addressed. The first is funding, if we want to keep these creative and humanities subjects at such a high level. The second is the pipeflow. We have talked about the EBacc before, but would the Minister now care to consider what damage it is doing and the danger it poses to the pipeflow to our university and FE sector?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I really do not follow the logic of how the EBacc is damaging the flow to our universities. Humanities and modern foreign languages are absolutely central and at the heart of the EBacc, but we are building on that with our higher technical qualifications and T-levels in areas such art and design, which will be introduced this year. I remind the House that bursaries and scholarships for, say, modern foreign language teachers are at the same level as for physics teachers.

Lord Blunkett Portrait Lord Blunkett (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be crazy to restrict entry from overseas students to particular universities or particular faculties or courses within those universities, not least because it would say that all the rest were perfectly okay for our daughters and sons but were not good enough for overseas students?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am not aware that that plan has currently been proposed. Where we have concerns about quality, they are about courses rather than subject areas at individual institutions, where the outcomes for those students, whether they are international or domestic, are significantly poorer than for the same course at another institution.

Lord Bishop of Sheffield Portrait The Lord Bishop of Sheffield
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, almost every armed conflict in the world at present has a religious dimension, making informed and respectful dialogue increasingly critical for international peace and security. In that context, the steady decline in the numbers of those studying religion, theology and ethics in our higher education institutions is a cause for real concern. Given the dearth of graduates in these subjects at present, can the Minister tell us how the Government will nurture the necessary religious literacy of our public life in the coming years?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

This is a very important subject and, I may say, goes wider in terms of critical thinking and understanding the information that we receive both in reality and online. I do not have the specific figures for religious studies on their own, but historical, philosophical and religious studies have declined over the last three years, as the right reverend Prelate said, but only by 5%. Multiple issues impact on that, but I think we also see young people seeking debate, and the moves that we have made as a Government on free speech within our universities are critical to underpinning that.

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, the Government indicated that they would publish a cultural education plan by the end of last year, but they have given no commitment on a date for publishing. If they are keen, as we are, to put creativity at the heart of education, can they now give us a timeline for the publication of the plan?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

I am unable to give the noble Baroness a precise timeline, but the Government have already acted on cultural and creative education, for example through our investment in the institutes of technology: all 21 of these will be open by this autumn and seven are already working directly with creative, film and entertainment industries, addressing just the sort of cultural and creative jobs that I know the noble Baroness aspires to.

Lord Aberdare Portrait Lord Aberdare (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I declare my interest as a graduate in classics, or literae humaniores as they were called at Oxford. Studying classics can open doors to a vast range of knowledge and experience, including language learning; grammar and vocabulary; literature and history; scientific, botanical and medical terminology; arts, architecture and sculpture, so much of which is based on classical themes and models, as is classical music; and logical thinking, which is so important to digital technologies and coding and to other fields of activity. So what steps are the Government taking to promote and enhance continued teaching of classical subjects at university?

Baroness Barran Portrait Baroness Barran (Con)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

The noble Lord will be aware that the Government do not impose in any way on universities what subjects they should teach. The noble Lord has done a most marvellous marketing pitch for classics; I expect to see applications rise in response this autumn. But it is up to individual universities to decide. In schools, we have been encouraging the greater teaching of Latin, and certainly that is much appreciated by those students who benefit.