Water Safety Education

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Tuesday 7th May 2024

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
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1 pm
Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I understand that there is agreement by John Cryer and the Minister for another hon. Member to participate in the debate. However, as is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up the debate.

John Cryer Portrait John Cryer (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the provision of water safety education in schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank Mr Speaker for choosing this debate, which I am delighted to have secured. It is on a subject that is of great importance to me as vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on swimming, and I am sure that it is a matter of interest and concern for Members on both sides of the House. I also want briefly to thank both Philip Brownlie, head of public affairs at Swim England—it used to be the Amateur Swimming Association, in my day—for all his help in securing the debate and with my speech, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), the chair of the all-party group.

Swimming has been a genuine passion of mine for many years. I started to swim at the age of five or six and I have swum with various swimming clubs, such as Leyton ASC, Hornchurch ASC and East Grinstead Tri Club. I want every child to have the kind of opportunity that I and many others had when we were growing up. If we can develop children’s physical literacy through good-quality, positive experiences at school, we can set them up for a lifelong love of being active.

Swimming is obviously a sport, but it is probably the only sport that might save someone’s life at some point. Figures shared with me by the Royal Life Saving Society show that the number of child drownings is increasing at an alarming rate. In my view, that is not unconnected to the net loss of swimming pools in this country of about 400 over the past decade. In 2022, there was a 46% increase in the number of child drownings against the five-year average, and although the 2023 data has not been officially published, early indications suggest that child drownings may have increased significantly again last year.

School Pupils with Allergies

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Thursday 30th November 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered pupils with allergies in schools.

I sincerely thank hon. Members for making time for this afternoon’s debate. I am ever mindful that the reason why people are here is that they want to be here. The House has risen—even the Adjournment debate is over—and those of us here today are here with a purpose, which is to put forward our request.

We are very pleased to see family members of allergy sufferers in the Public Gallery, and we are here to fight for them. I thank them for the books they have made available to us. I read Helen’s story about her wee boy in today’s paper. I know that she sent the story of her child to all MPs and explained why this debate is so important.

May I say what a pleasure it is to see the Minister in his place? I do not believe I have had the opportunity to address him in his current capacity, even though I am a regular in Westminster Hall. I am really pleased, as always, to see my good friends the shadow Ministers from Labour and the SNP in their places, and other colleagues who have made an effort to be here.

What are we doing today? We are raising the important issue of allergies in our local schools. I am the Member for Strangford in Northern Ireland, where education and health are devolved, but I will make a case for Helen, her family and her wee boy Benedict. The debate is important not just for those of us present, but for people across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Food allergy affects around 7% to 8% of children worldwide, or about two children in an average-sized classroom of 25, which gives a perspective on what the impact can be. It highlights the sheer volume of young people and parents on whom allergies impact. It is so important that we address this issue in the right way. I understand that the Minister has a copy of my contribution and the four requests at the end of it—the four requests that Helen and others in the Public Gallery have also made.

I am the DUP’s health spokesperson, and I am grateful to be able to make the case on behalf of all representatives and those who could not attend but wish to be here. Our schools are safe places for our children—somewhere to grow and learn—which is the way we want it and the way it should be. If we want that to be the case in our schools, we need to make sure that it is safe for that to happen. Children spend at least 20% of their waking hours in school, and further data shows that 18% of food allergy reactions, and approximately 25% of first-time anaphylactic reactions, occur at school. Collectively, we are asking for action on behalf of parents who have lost loved ones and those who are concerned for the future, because the figures highlight the need for better strategies to tackle allergies in schools. Anaphylaxis due to food allergy occurs more in schools than in any other setting. The very nature of schools is that they are places where kids socialise, chat and eat food. Schools are our focus for this debate, and it is important that we get things right.

Around 30% of allergic reactions in schools occur in children previously not known to have a food allergy. With that being the case, we really need this debate to highlight the issue. There is no doubt that we all have some experience of allergies and intolerances—there is probably not a family that does not—and maybe some Members in this Chamber have an intolerance. One of my sons had some allergies when he was smaller. The lady I was speaking to before the start of this debate was talking about airborne allergies and how this triggers asthma. My second son had asthma; he was born with it. We were told that although he had psoriasis when he was first born, when the psoriasis left him the asthma would come—there was a combination. I am not medically qualified to say that; it is what the nurses and doctors told me. We were always very cautious about the things he ate, and ensured that anti-allergen tablets were taken.

One of my staff members has a son who has a severe allergy to egg whites. That is another example. He has spent numerous nights in hospital over the last 20 years of his life, and his mother has had to be especially vigilant when he has been offered certain vaccines because the vaccines themselves can complicate the issue. We are able, over the years, to build an understanding of how to cope with these allergies, but for younger children, who are being exposed to new foods and new surroundings, it is not always that easy, especially in schools.

Every debate I do, I learn something; I have clearly learned today that there are probably airborne allergens in this room at this moment and, if we have an allergy, we could react to one of those. However, what is responsible for my being here today and for making this debate happen is the story of Benedict Blythe and engaging with his mother, Helen. I understand that she sent an email to every MP. I got it, and the issue caught my attention, as it did for other hon. Members here today and those who unfortunately cannot be here but wish that they could be. Helen is utterly fantastic and a devoted voice for this cause. It was her energy, commitment and dedication that ensured that we all found out about this issue.

Benedict, Helen’s son, was allergic to milk, eggs, nuts, sesame, soya, chickpeas and kiwi. He also had asthma. In 2021, he collapsed at school and died in hospital. I am ever mindful that Helen has fought this campaign through the Benedict Blythe Foundation. She wants every school to have an allergies policy and tailored healthcare plans for all pupils with allergies, so if I could ask for just one thing at the end of this debate, on behalf of Helen and others, that would be the request. The Minister already knows what my requests are, and I am very confident that he will be interested and dedicated and committed to making those changes.

The relevant petition garnered some 13,000 signatures, so it is not a small petition by any means. It galvanised the opinion of many across this great United Kingdom, and that is also part of the story. If people have not heard the story, or read the story in the paper today, I encourage them to do so, please.

I know that Helen has raised the case of her son, Benedict, with many Members across this House, and not just that—there are thousands of people across the United Kingdom, including me and my constituents in Strangford in Northern Ireland, who support her wholeheartedly in doing this. I will just give some background to Benedict’s story, if I may.

This debate is taking place on the eve of the second anniversary of Benedict Blythe’s death. Benedict was only five years old at the time. He was a lovely young boy with so much to live for. The Benedict Blythe Learning Foundation was established in 2021 in memory of five-year-old Benedict following his collapse at school and subsequent death from anaphylaxis. He was an enthusiastic learner—as children are at that age. Children are almost like a sponge because they want to learn it all and they want to learn it right now. And that was what Benedict did. He loved to “play numbers” and learn about the natural world. Inspired by his passion for knowledge, exploration and play, the Benedict Blythe Foundation seeks to support other children to have the same positive relationship with learning and education, regardless of their ability, and to remove barriers to education. If young Benedict had survived, he could well have gone on to become an MP in this House, such was his interest in making things change and making things happen.

Benedict was allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, sesame and chickpeas. Helen and her husband, Pete, are still waiting for the inquest to shed light on how and why their son died, but they say the horrifying speed with which he became ill—I understand that there is an inquest to be heard—demonstrates the need for pupils with allergies to be better protected at school. That is one of the requests of this debate.

Helen and her husband, all of us here and all those in the Gallery today are calling for new legislation to make that happen, including mandatory allergy and anaphylaxis training, statutory allergy policies, individual healthcare plans for all children with allergies and spare adrenalin pens in every school. We have many requests, but that is our core request. That would allow children with allergies to have a fantastic experience of school and enjoy all the fun of learning and social interaction with their friends, despite their allergies. It is about having a normal life and yet, at the same time, having an agreement to deal with the problems of allergies.

There is a need for schools to be better prepared to manage the increasing number of children with allergies entering a classroom. In September 2017, the UK Department for Education published guidance on the use of adrenalin auto-injectors in schools. It states that from 1 October 2017 schools may purchase AAI devices without a prescription for emergency use in children who are at risk of anaphylaxis. Schools may administer their spare AAIs to children in emergencies but only to a pupil at risk of anaphylaxis, where both medical authorisation and written parental consent for use of the spare AAI has been approved.

To parallel the UK’s guidance, Northern Ireland’s version issued by the local Department of Education back home, updated in October 2018, essentially reflects the DFE document. In Northern Ireland, while schools are expected to develop policies to support pupils with medical needs, including allergies, and review them regularly, there is no statutory requirement for them to do so. It is a guideline that schools will follow. Today, we are trying to underline the need for legislation that can make that compulsory. While everyone says, “Yes, we will do that,” we need to make sure there is enforcement to do that. That is not about being critical of anybody and it is not about pointing the finger; we are just saying, “Let’s get it right.”

I can speak for the schools in my constituency that go above and beyond to cater for pupils with medical needs. The extent of the allergies that children have can vary, but ensuring that teachers are aware of the correct protocol, no matter how severe the allergy, is the core of the solution. Support for children with allergies can vary significantly across the country. Examples of best practice exist and include some in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland where schools find ways to be inclusive and keep children safe.

Whenever a mum or dad leaves a child in school, they are fairly confident that their child is safe. We need to make sure that the child is safe. That often depends on teachers going above and beyond that guidance. For every instance of good practice, there are many cases of severe allergic reactions and, unfortunately, sometimes death. The lack of universal standardisation of school allergy policies is a concern given that around a quarter of allergic reactions to food in children occur at school, some of which result in fatalities from anaphylaxis.

I am conscious of time so I will briefly make some comparisons. There are international jurisdictions that have schemes in place that could provide us as a collective with inspiration. I mention some, such as Canada and Sabrina’s law, the first of its kind ever, which requires Canadian public schools to create and execute anaphylaxis plans to reduce allergen exposure and communicate with parents, students and staff about allergies. It is about getting the communication thing right. That has to be done so that everyone understands, and people know what to look out for and what to stop the children from taking. It also requires allergy and AAI training for educators and for individual plans to be created for high-risk students. US states such as Colorado, Michigan and Ohio have laws to ensure students have access to AAIs and that schools keep adequate stocks. Again, that is precautionary but it is important that it is done. Schools must also have individual health plans in place to keep students safe.

The Benedict Blythe Foundation has already achieved some important milestones. Just last week, on 23 November 2023, the foundation launched a schools allergy code, co-created by parents, educators, clinicians, the Benedict Blythe Foundation, the Independent Schools’ Bursars Association and The Allergy Team. The foundation is to the fore in leading on that, and we congratulate it. The code is a guide to best practice in achieving a whole-school approach to allergy safety and inclusion. If you wanted a guide or legislative framework, hang it on this, because it will make the difference. It has been made available as a free resource to all schools to ensure good allergy management in their settings, and it is based around four key principles.

First, take a whole-school approach. Every member of the school community should understand allergy and their responsibility for reducing risk, from pupils and parents to staff members. Allergy management is not just the responsibility of the catering and medical teams; it is everybody’s responsibility. I know the Minister understands that and will respond to that point when he speaks. Secondly, information about the school’s approach to allergy must be communicated and given to people clearly and frequently. Thirdly, there must be clear governance and risk management—create an awareness of allergy risk across all activities and processes. Fourthly, be ready to respond. Have systems, processes and medication in place for emergencies.

Earlier this year, the foundation launched a petition, which as I said has garnered some 13,000 signatures. It called for the current voluntary guidance to be replaced by a funded, mandatory requirement for all schools. The petition has four asks—the Minister has access to them, and I am hoping that others have as well. They are that we need to have an allergy policy in place; to co-create an individual healthcare plan for all pupils with allergy and anaphylaxis; to hold spare adrenaline auto-injector pens in schools; and to train school staff and teachers in allergy awareness and allergy first aid.

The wonderful thing about the request I am making today is that it will not cost the earth. The Minister knows the figure, because I have mentioned it already. To be fair, he already knew it; he did not need me to tell him. As a gentle reminder, the steps would cost less than £5 million per year to implement in England. That is a modest sum to save a life. It would ensure that current best practice is implemented nationally, making a significant difference to keeping children safe while providing peace of mind for parents, who send their children off to school and have every intention and hope of seeing them at the end of the day. What we have here is value for money in these trying financial times.

As Members may be aware, I have worked very closely with the Oliver King Foundation to campaign for public access to defibrillators, especially in schools. I always put it on the record if somebody does something right, so I am grateful that the Government took forward my recommendations. I am no better than anybody else—far from it—but the Bill that I presented on this issue was taken up by the hon. Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris). Along with Ministers with responsibility for health and education at that time, she encouraged me to take this on board. The Minister here today and the Minister who preceded him made sure that defibrillators were available in schools and took steps to fund that.

Once again I make a plea to the Government, and it is about a cause similar to the one they endorsed before, which undoubtedly saved lives. We can stop severe illness and death from allergies among young people in schools if we have the correct provisions in place. I do not care who does it, as long as somebody does it. I am not worried about whether it is a ten-minute rule Bill that I introduce or somebody else introduces. Just do the job—that is the most important thing—and take the credit.

As I always state, there is an understanding that education is devolved and that it is not the sole responsibility of the Education Secretary to introduce law in Northern Ireland, but I believe we can—indeed, we must—initiate a joint approach to ensuring that the whole of this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has a strategy in place to protect young people with allergies.

Dr Adam Fox, professor of paediatric allergy at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital—not too far from here—has stated:

“There is a clear need for a change in culture around how food allergies are managed in schools. The UK”—

unfortunately—

“lags behind other countries and children are suffering and even dying as a result. By really educating the whole school community about food allergy we can turn things around.”

That is my request to the Minister in this debate. It is a request that all of us, including those in the Gallery, will make collectively, and we look forward to a positive response from the Minister.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I remind Members who wish to catch my eye that they should bob.

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Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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I think I got it right that time—as the hon. Member for Strangford indicated. We play that game occasionally here.

Social or fundraising activities, including charity bakes, can be really dangerous for children with severe food allergies. When teachers are buying food—as they often do—for things such as Christmas parties, they should be aware of these things, so that they can eliminate the risk of children coming into contact with food they are allergic to.

If this debate encourages the Minister to bring in not just guidelines but regulations, everyone in this Chamber will be extremely happy, and I know that the Benedict Blythe Foundation will be too. I therefore encourage the Minister to look at the four asks and to see what he can do to help everyone involved.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I call Catherine McKinnell to speak on behalf of the Labour party.

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Alicia Kearns Portrait Alicia Kearns
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If the point is around the Department believing that this is being done rightly, does the Minister know whether Ofsted, when it reviews schools, takes into account whether or not the allergy guidance and section 100 is being upheld adequately? I am aware that this falls between two briefs; it is not just the Minister’s brief. If that is not the case, could he write to me? That may actually be the solution: we say that when Ofsted inspects schools, because the loss of life is so high—66 children—this should be part of its reviews. That way, it can say it is meeting its requirements and commitments to children—to keep them safe and ensure it is doing everything to look after them in every single way it can, as we would all wish it to be doing. That may be the solution that fixes this gap that, between us, we seem to be coming to.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. This has been a good and important debate, but I must remind hon. Members that interventions should be short. I did not want to intervene previously, but I also remind Members that I am not involved in the debate—you should not refer to other Members as “you”.

Suicide Prevention and the National Curriculum

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Monday 13th March 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for her intervention and I offer my condolences to Peter’s family. As she said, this greater awareness is something that we want across the entire UK.

As I was saying, suicide is the single biggest killer of young people in Britain. The figures are very difficult to swallow. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that between April 2020 and March 2021 157 young boys and 72 young girls between the ages of 10 and 19 took their own life. That cannot be right, can it?

At least until my time in this place began, I was one of the many people who thought that talking about self-harm and suicide was not a good idea; I thought that putting thoughts into young people’s minds by discussing the issue openly would only make things worse. However, the many professionals and charities I have spoken to disagree, and a literature review conducted by Cambridge University showed that there is no research to prove that that idea about putting thoughts into young people’s minds about suicide was true. Children are exposed to so much on their phones that they need the tools to help them to deal with the subject. An appropriate curriculum, taught well, could do just that. However, we also need to think and act maturely and responsibly on this issue. If we find that, by discussing this issue, an unintended consequence is that suicide rates among young people increase, we must be prepared to think again.

The professionals who I have spoken to are all agreed that this subject should be included in the curriculum. They also agreed that year 7 and upwards was the best time to start. Furthermore, they agreed that it should not be discussed just in one year of secondary school, which I believe some schools already do, but should form part of each academic year for 11 to 12-year-olds upwards. For those children who are younger, this subject should not necessarily be broached. However, the message to them should be that they have the right to be, and to feel, safe. There should be no secrets and nothing should be kept from parents, on this matter or any other.

The professionals said that ideally this subject should be taught by external providers who are specialists in it and that after each session there should be a follow-up session to talk to any children who are concerned. They also said that both parents and teachers should be trained in how to deal with children who were struggling; in how to better spot any signs that something might be wrong; and in being proactive in starting conversations. We cannot place the responsibility on the shoulders of our young boys and girls to come forward and talk. It is our responsibility—in fact, our duty—to keep our eyes and ears open at all times. Mental health first aid training might be one way of achieving that.

I have concerns about bringing external providers into schools, as I have seen some highly inappropriate content on other subjects within RSHE, and parents are kept in the dark about what is being taught. If we are to use such providers, the content must be shared with parents. If a parent has concerns, their voice should be respected. I am sure the Government will take that on board.

Last week, I was delighted to receive a letter for the 3 Dads and I from the Secretary of State for Education. It said that the Government will include suicide prevention as a key priority area in their forthcoming review of RSHE. I greatly welcome that move; it is a real step forward. I am hopeful of a good debate today where we all have one aim: stopping our children and young people taking their own lives. Their lives are so precious. As a dad, my children are my life and my greatest joy; I cannot think of anything worse than losing them. I ask the Minister to do what we can to stop this. The Government are good, and they can—and do—do good things. Let this be the next good thing they do.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I ask hon. Members to stand if you want to speak, even if you have written in. If you have not written in, please stand. It will give you and me an idea of how to proportion the time during the debate.

International Students: Contribution to the UK

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Wednesday 2nd November 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. That is absolutely correct, and it complements what the hon. Member for Stirling said about the way our research base is threatened outside Horizon Europe.

Frankly, the UK needs all the help it can get on the international stage. Given that the Government cannot decide whether it is worth turning up to key global events such as COP and are trashing our reputation by claiming that the jury is out on whether our key partners and neighbours are friend or foe, we cannot afford further mishaps. The QS World University Rankings assess universities on six key indicators, one of which is the international student and international faculty ratio. A highly international university demonstrates the ability to attract quality students and staff from around the world, and implies a highly global outlook and diversity of culture, knowledge and thought. It makes us more competitive. It is therefore hugely important that we maintain those numbers.

As for soft power, when I was campaigning for change I met the ambassador from one of our important allies in the far east, an important economic partner. We were talking about these issues and he said, “Paul, do you realise that three quarters of our Cabinet were educated at UK universities?” That is soft power that the rest of the world would die for, and it is hugely important. The 2022 HEPI soft power index shows the benefit of international students, with 55 world leaders having taken advantage of UK higher education.

I hope the new Minister will take on board these arguments and, with his colleagues in the Department for Education, do all he can to make the case to colleagues in the Home Office that we do not want to go through this again. Let us not have that whole seven years of making the mistake, trawling back from it, and then setting an ambition to do what has been undone by such negative policies.

I hope the Minister will not only answer the questions posed by the hon. Member for Stirling, but reflect on the implications for our universities, our regional economies and our international standing if we go back on the Government’s own ambition, set out in the international education strategy.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I intend to call the SNP spokesperson at 5.10 pm at the latest. If Members wish to speak, whether or not they have written to Mr Speaker, will they stand to indicate that? That is a help to the Chair.

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Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (Ind)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and to catch your eye slightly spontaneously—it is much appreciated. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on securing this important and timely debate. I did not necessarily need to speak, because I basically agreed with every single word that he said.

Like the other speakers, I am proud to represent a university constituency, and the University of Glasgow has an incredibly long and proud international history. I do not mean that as a cliché—it was literally founded by a papal bull in 1451, so it has a very long history indeed, and it is proud of its international outreach since that time.

One of the outstanding points in its history occurred in 1837 when it awarded James McCune Smith his medical doctorate. He was the first African-American to be awarded a medical degree, and went back to the United States, where he practised medicine and pharmacy and was an absolute pioneer and champion of the anti-slavery and equal rights movements in those days. Today, the James McCune Smith learning hub bears his name and sits proudly on University Avenue in the west end of Glasgow. It is testament not just to his achievements and to the university’s achievements over all the years, but to the very presence of the international students in such great numbers that have made the institution what it is today—as many of 14,000 of them, if I am reading the statistics correctly, across undergraduate, postgraduate taught and postgraduate research courses. They come from dozens and dozens of countries; as far as I can tell, practically every country in the world is represented by at least a handful of students on the campus and in our city, and that is testament to all the points that have been made by Members today. That is true of the city as a whole.

I am proud to represent the University of Glasgow. I am also proud to be a graduate of the University of Strathclyde, and everything that I say about what international students bring to the city and the country applies equally to the University of Strathclyde, to Glasgow Caledonian University, to Glasgow School of Art, to the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and to the many further education institutions that the city and the country are so rightly proud of. As I say, that impact is visible across the city as a whole, in the shops, in the catering outlets and in the visible presence of the cultural festivals that the student cohorts bring to the city. It is present and visible in the way in which the campuses themselves have been shaped, with the incredible new facilities provided in the new buildings, many of which are available for use by the public as a whole, contributing to the society and economy of the communities to which the universities belong in exactly the way that we have heard.

The presence of international students, as other Members have said, raises ambitions and standards in the institutions and in the communities as whole. That is not without its challenges. Anyone, particularly students trying to find accommodation in Glasgow over the last few months, will be able to testify to that, and that is true of other cities as well. However, that speaks to the importance of creating a welcoming environment and the importance of having the infrastructure in place to support the presence of so many students. A big part of that involves providing certainty about numbers and certainty of access.

That starts to speak to the UK Government’s policies on funding for institutions, and particularly on access to visas and country entry requirements. It is not just about study visas, but about post-study work visas. This is not purely transactional, and students should not just come for three or four years, then leave again, but can be inspired to settle, make their home here and continue to contribute to our economy and society.

Sadly—and I suspect anyone with a university in their constituency will find this— the casework continues to suggest that is not always the case. I remember one of the very first constituents who came to see me in 2015 was literally a rocket scientist and could not get a visa to work here. In the end, I think we managed to make some kind of progress, but the people we want to attract are banging their head against the wall of the universe of the UK Government’s hostile environment policy. This is where, as with so much of the new Government’s agenda, the reality of their stated ambition is going to have to confront the practice of what they are trying to input because, if they really do want growth and a global Britain, putting up barriers to people coming here is contradictory to both of those things. It will not achieve either the outcome that they want to see or the outcome that those of us who believe in multiculturalism and internationalism want to produce: a growing and diverse society.

The main Chamber is currently discussing the concept of independence, and Government Members—and indeed some Opposition Members—want to make the case for the strength of the Union. However, limiting and undermining the ability of further and higher education institutions to attract students from all around the world is not an argument in favour of the Union. That does not speak to the strength of the UK.

Again, if strengthening the Union is one of this Government’s priorities, they need to look at their policies in these areas. I echo all of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling and the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and, indeed, much of what the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said. I pay tribute, once again, to the incredible community at the University of Glasgow. Long may that internationalism—that outreach to the world and that bringing of the world to our fantastically diverse city—continue.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I would just say, for the future, it really does help the Chair to allocate time if hon. Members stand if they want to make a contribution.

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Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. Let me express my thanks for the way that you have chaired the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for bringing this debate about, and I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), to his new role.

We have heard widely about the passion for higher education across these islands. The hon. Member for Stirling talked about its importance and power to inform, enlighten and aid discovery. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) not just about the economic contribution that universities make, but about how they are cultural, social and economic powerhouses. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) talked about the soft power that our institutions have earned among Governments and institutions around the world, and the great achievements of the APPG. It is not just the size of the contribution that our institutions make that is so impressive; their cultural, societal and economic value cumulatively adds to the UK’s global reputation.

Let us be clear: the UK is the aspiration destination for most international students. Through a powerful combination of our world-class lecturers, leading facilities and institutions’ international standing, UK higher education is the benchmark around the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central said, that is clearly seen in the Higher Education Policy Institute’s soft power index, in which the UK is positioned second.

The virtues of British higher education are reflected and amplified through Governments and leaders around the world. Closer to home, international students turn university campuses into melting pots of cultures, traditions, languages and thinking. Only two weeks ago during a visit to Oxford Brookes University, I sat around a table with half a dozen students hailing from Bulgaria, Nigeria and Hong Kong, as well as from the UK, all studying international development and sustainability. They were using their individual experiences from back home to help to shape their learning and that of their fellow students. Many expressed a desire to return to their country of birth to show what they had learned from their lecturers and fellow students, but many want to stay.

International students add enormous value to the UK economy and research base. The Entrepreneurs Network estimates that nearly half of Britain’s 100 fastest-growing start-ups have at least one immigrant co-founder. That leads me nicely on to the economic value of international students. Their precise economic value is really secondary to the wider social and cultural benefits that they bring, but it is still an important contribution to the UK.

Research conducted by The London Economic and HEPI, commissioned by Universities UK, found that the 2018-19 cohort of international students delivered a net economic benefit of £26 billion to the UK economy. Although our economic benefit is most concentrated in London, as we have heard, the material benefit to each of our constituencies is marked, ranging from £460 per constituent in the north-east and Scotland to £330 per constituent in the south-east, and a staggering £2,200 in Sheffield Central. In spite of the clear and obvious benefits that international students bring to the UK, Government rhetoric on migration, including international students, has tarnished the UK’s reputation as the aspiration destination—a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan).

I note the fiscal black hole caused by the recent Budget, which hovers at £40 billion to £50 billion. Let us put that into the context of the £26 billion that international students bring to the UK. It is important that we welcome international students and do all we can to enhance our reputation rather than to trash it. Two weeks ago it was suggested that the then Home Secretary was set to announce sweeping reforms that would have seen international student numbers capped and limits imposed on the number of dependents that international students can bring. Not long before that statement was due, she resigned. Policies such as those, circulating in a sea of chaos at the heart of Government, dent the UK’s international reputation and risk putting off international students. I urge the Minister to set out his Department’s commitment to international student numbers and to seek a commitment from the Home Secretary that international students will not be the latest front in her culture war.

In contrast, Labour is fully committed to protecting, encouraging and advancing the interests of all students, including international students. A simple comparative approach between the replacement Erasmus+ scheme in Labour-run Wales and SNP-run Scotland shows that, where action is required, Labour will always put opportunity for our young people ahead of political manoeuvres. Earlier this year, the Labour Government in Wales launched Taith.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. Can I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a conclusion, so I can bring in the Minister?

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will. Gambling on our young people’s prospects with politics is short sighted and narrow. The same could be said of the UK Government’s decision to withdraw from the European University Institute, a university based in Bologna that provided opportunities for young people, free of charge, to study for masters degrees and PhDs. Guided by our beliefs in opportunity, collaboration and partnership, Labour will support international students and continue to champion their worth, because, put simply, universities are forces for public good, and we should all champion and be proud of the international students who contribute to that good.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Minister, before I call you, can I ask you to leave a couple of minutes at the end for the winding-up speech? That will be at about 5.28.

Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

First, I declare my interest as vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Durham University.

A few years ago, when I was at the Department for Education as a special adviser, I started in a roughly similar position to that of Opposition Members today. I did not think this should be a priority for Government either, but I have changed my views on that since I became a Member of Parliament. [Interruption.] Well, we will see how the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) votes tonight and whether it will be along his party lines in defiance of an overwhelming argument from the Government Benches.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) made some very clear and sensible points about cancel culture, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) did the same on freedom of religion, and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) had some interesting suggestions on where the Government should go further. I was particularly gladdened to hear from the hon. Members for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who spoke about issues surrounding women in academia and academic freedom. The argument from the Opposition Front Bench on this hate speech has clearly been knocked down by the Government. It is a Potemkin argument. We now argue about whether the Potemkin villages ever even existed. I think we will find that the Opposition Front Benchers’ arguments do not really stand scrutiny when the Bill makes further progress through this House.

What has changed my view is recent meetings I have had at the University of Durham. As I said earlier, this is not a sledgehammer to crack a nut, as Opposition Members have suggested. When a leading academic in the politics department told me that he had been castigated by colleagues for teaching about John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”, I found that absolutely astonishing. When I had cases where 18 and 19-year-old kids in my constituency were being cancelled within their own student societies for airing their pretty moderate views, it really surprised and worried me.

I gave a speech at South College, Durham a few weeks ago on this subject of freedom of speech. What has really tipped me over is the concern—the right hon. Member for North Durham and I agree on many things, but we totally disagree on this—about the influence of certain Governments and their financial power within the UK’s university education system. Let us consider the example of a university with 10,000 students, 60% of whom are from the UK and 40% of whom are from overseas. In the UK today, we will often find that half of those overseas students come from the People’s Republic of China and the amount of money they pay in tuition fees is equal to the income from the 60% from the UK. There is a real issue with freedom of speech if our universities are so dependent on those foreign sources of income, and that issue is present on our campuses today. I know that because I have spoken to students and academics who have been affected by it.

The key thing is that universities just wash their faces with the cash they get from UK students; the extra cash they get from overseas students allows them to do all the extra stuff they want to do. It pays for all the fancy new buildings we will have seen going up. It pays for the extra stuff universities want to be able to do, which allows them to push themselves up international league tables. That is what is really worrying me at the moment—we have a university system that is so reliant on that cash that it cannot pursue academic freedom itself any more, without the Government standing up to tell it that it has to.

That is one of the most important points about this legislation; it is there not just to protect freedom of speech, but to promote it. This addresses a point I made when I intervened on the Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). People will not put themselves forward to say things about the Uyghurs, or about Hong Kong, democracy and freedom, because they are petrified of the impact it will have on their career, faculties and students. That is why this Bill is so apposite and important. We have a duty in our academic institutions in this country, which are some of the most respected in the world, not only to protect free speech, but to promote it. That element is key, because it gives academics the freedom to challenge, and sometimes they will be challenging their own academic institutions. That is at the core of everything we have to do as we look forward.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
- Hansard - -

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about universities being dependent on income from overseas students. What concerns me more, and it is not touched by this Bill, is that some universities are getting investment from companies such as Tencent, which is wholly owned by the Chinese Government and is deeply involved in the surveillance state. Tencent has put a huge amount of money into the Chinese centre at Cambridge University, and Professor Nolan is telling students not to criticise the People’s Republic of China. Is that not a much bigger concern? It is not covered by this Bill.

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Holden
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I am just pointing out the massive financial ties to foreign Governments, and there is an element of this Bill helping to start to break down that barrier. Anything that contributes to that is a good thing.

Let me wind up by saying that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) made some really important points about sexual assault in universities, and I hope the Minister has taken those on board. Some close friends of mine were affected by that, and the Office for Students really needs to take this forward. I hope she will use her good offices to that end.

Exams: Covid-19

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Monday 12th October 2020

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

I remind Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new call-list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected.

Members should sanitise their microphones using the cleaning materials provided before they use them, and should respect the one-way system around the Chamber. Members should speak only from the horseshoe. Members may speak only if they are on the call lists, and that applies even if debates are undersubscribed; Members may not join the debate if they are not on the call list. Members are not expected to remain for wind-ups. When there are more than 10 speakers, Members in the latter stages of the call list should use the seats in the Public Gallery and move on to the horseshoe when seats become available.

I also remind hon. Members that there is less expectation for them to stay for the next two speeches once they have spoken. That is to help manage attendance in the Chamber. Members may wish to stay beyond their speech but should be aware that, in doing so, they might prevent Members in the seats in the Public Gallery from moving to seats in the horseshoe—some of that is redundant, because no one is in the Public Gallery at the present time.

--- Later in debate ---
None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

There is no SNP spokesperson, so I intend to call the two Front-Bench speakers 20 minutes before the end, at 5.40 pm. They will get 10 minutes. There are 10 other speakers, so you can divide that up yourselves.

--- Later in debate ---
Margaret Greenwood Portrait Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate. We have had some really important contributions from Members. My hon. Friend gave an excellent speech, grounded in the realities faced by pupils and teachers, and called on the Government to listen to their voices. She rightly said that clarity is paramount for everybody involved.

The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Hew Merriman) called on the Government to consider looking at coursework marked by exam boards. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) spoke eloquently on the confusion and chaos that the Government have presided over this year and the heartbreaking stories of university places being withdrawn. He also set out how students from disadvantaged backgrounds were most likely to be adversely affected and how Ministers were responsible for hard-baking disadvantage into the system. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) spoke passionately about the injustice visited on her constituents as a result of the Government’s discriminatory actions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) expressed her concerns about the impact that Government actions would have on students’ subject choices.

My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) paid tribute to pupils who have shown extraordinary resilience this year, and she spoke of the injustice visited on BTEC students, who had to face such long delays before receiving their results. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) set out quite clearly that the Government’s incompetence over the summer beggars belief, and that they should learn from their mistakes. She also spoke eloquently about the disadvantage that children in her constituency face.

The petitions that we have been debating today each received almost 150,000 signatures, so it is clear that these issues are of immense public interest. The Government have presided over a summer of chaos, incompetence and confusion, and their failure to effectively manage the exams and assessments processes for summer 2020 caused enormous anxiety for many children and young people, as well as their families and teachers.

There were problems from the beginning, with the way in which the Government decided that pupils’ grades would be calculated. According to Ofqual, Ministers were repeatedly warned about this issue. At a meeting of the Education Committee in September, Julie Swan, executive director of general qualifications at Ofqual, said that the regulator provided advice to Ministers on 16 March that

“it would be challenging if not impossible”

to attempt to moderate estimated grades in a way that would be fair for all of this year’s students. She went on to say that

“Everyone, throughout the process, was aware of the risks”,

and referred to a paper of the general public sector ministerial implementation group on 1 May, which highlighted the risk of widespread dissatisfaction with the grades awarded among individual students, schools and colleges, and the risk to public confidence. She also said that Ofqual briefed No.10 on 7 August and held regular meetings throughout this period with the Minister for School Standards.

After days of confusion following the A-level results on 13 August, when nearly 40% of students’ centre-assessed grades were adjusted downwards, the Secretary of State finally listened to young people, their parents, their teachers and the Labour party, and allowed centre-assessed grades to be used.

Labour tried through an Opposition day debate and a vote on the Floor of the House to get the Government to be open and transparent about what Ministers knew, when they knew it and what they did about it when they were warned of the difficulties. Full disclosure of this information by the Government would at least have enabled students, their families and their teachers to see what went wrong and why. Although Conservative MPs voted the motion down, the Government’s chaotic handling of the exams process really dented confidence in our examination system.

There are now questions about what happens next summer and beyond. Petition 320772 called on the Government to reduce curriculum content for year 10 and 12 students who will sit exams next year. It argued that the loss of classroom-based learning cannot be effectively compensated for by the provision of remote learning activities, and that reducing the content will give students the opportunity to sit their exams equitably. In August, Labour called for A-level and GCSE exams in 2021 to be pushed back to June, to give pupils a better chance to catch up on lost teaching time. On 1 September, the Secretary of State indicated that the Government would indeed implement a delay to exams. Then there was a long period of silence from the Department.

What were the Government doing when they should have been providing much-needed clarity to teachers and students about assessment for 2021? The silence lasted for five and a half weeks, until just two days ago, on 10 October, when press reports suggested that the Secretary of State was expected to announce a three-week delay in the start of next summer’s exams, alongside a requirement for schools to hold mock exams in controlled conditions earlier in the year, with exam-style invigilating, marking and grading. According to those reports, the mock grades could then be used to assess results in regions or centres where pupils’ exam preparations had been severely disrupted by coronavirus outbreaks, or in the event of their being unable to sit exams in the summer.

The Government’s announcement today about the exams for next summer, along with those press reports, raise a number of questions. Can the Minister say why speculative reports about next year’s exams appeared in the press before an official announcement was made? Why has it taken the Government almost half of the first school term to come up with this statement? Can the Minister elaborate on reports in the press referring to tensions between the Department and Ofqual? Will he also set out the full range of options for next summer’s exams presented to the Department by Ofqual?

The Government have also announced that they will engage widely with the sector over the next six weeks to identify any risks to exams at national, local and individual student level, and to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption. That is really quite remarkable. What have the Government been doing, and why have they not been doing this already? Students and teachers really cannot wait any longer for the clarity that they need, yet today, as the leaves outside are turning golden brown, the Government are telling them that more detail will be published later in the autumn. Precisely when during this season does the Minister have in mind?

The incompetence of the Government is breathtaking. We need a Government who are able to plan effectively for next year. We do not know how much more school-based teaching time may be lost. However, we know it is likely that any such loss will be different for different schools and cohorts of pupils. A group of headteachers who wrote to me last week highlighted that very point, and said that:

“Substantial adjustments need to be made at subject level that will ensure those in areas of the country that have been most badly affected by the virus are not further disadvantaged by an assessment process that assumes that problems experienced have been spread equally”.

What plans do the Government have to address the matter? As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves) has pointed out, five education unions have come up with a proposal for awarding GCSE, AS and A-level grades in 2021. Together, the ASCL, the National Association of Head Teachers, the NASUWT, the National Education Union and the National Governance Association have set out recommendations that include commissioning an independent review of what happened this year to learn from when planning what to do next year, and publishing contingency plans as soon as possible to outline how students who are unable to sit exams in the summer, or whose education is significantly disrupted, will nevertheless receive robust, reliable grades next year. What assessment have the Government made of the unions’ recommendations?

Today’s announcement could have been made weeks ago. The consultation with the sector that the Government now say they will carry out over the next six weeks, to consider measures needed to address any potential disruption of learning, should have happened already. The fact that the Government say that they will publish more detail in the autumn will not give students and teachers reassurance. It will make them anxious at having to wait even longer for answers from the Government.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Minister, we have marginally more time than we expected. I would ask you to ensure that there are two or three minutes left at the end for winding-up remarks.

Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Tuesday 4th December 2018

(5 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for securing this important debate on mental health and wellbeing in schools, and other hon. Members who have made valuable contributions.

Despite all the warm rhetoric about this issue, the reality is that, when it comes to real action and real change to children and young people’s mental health, the Government are failing children and setting them up for future struggles. Schools are integral to the mental wellbeing of children and young people. They are where a lot of children spend a large majority of their time. For children for whom home is not a good place to be, or is a cause of distress, it can be the only safe, consistent element of their lives.

Last December’s Green Paper, “Transforming children and young people’s mental health provision”, seemed to signal, at last, a joined-up approach and a commitment between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education to address the crisis in children and young people’s mental health. As the report of the Education and Health Committees said, the Government’s strategy lacks ambition. The Committees said that it was narrow in scope and would put significant pressure on the teaching workforce. The report was entitled “Failing a generation”.

Sadly, just weeks ago, the NHS “Mental Health of Children and Young People in England” survey, referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who has long been a champion of improving mental health provision across the board, confirmed the failing of that generation. It found that one in eight five to 19-year-olds had at least one mental health disorder. That means that, in an average classroom, almost four pupils will be suffering. The Royal College of Psychiatrists estimates that that equates to about 1.23 million children and young people. The survey also found that 400,000 children and young people identified as being in need of support were not getting any whatever.

The proposed mental health support teams for schools have been heavily criticised, including by Barnardo’s, which accused the Government of

“sleep-walking into the deepening crisis in children’s mental health.”

As they stand, the plans are piecemeal and will serve only to deepen the existing postcode lottery. It is anticipated that just 20% to 25% will benefit from the support by 2022-23. I would appreciate it if the Minister explained to us how recruitment for the teams is going, what the arrangements for the designated mental health leads in schools are, where the first set of trailblazers are, and what the rationale was for choosing those trailblazer areas.

Furthermore, the teams will be for mild to moderate mental health issues. What happens to children who desperately need intervention from child and adolescent mental health services and specialist trauma-based support, such as the children my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to who are suffering from eating disorders and suicidal thoughts?

What about children looked after in kinship care, care leavers and child refugees? The Children’s Commissioner noted that only 104,000 of more than 338,000 children referred to CAMHS in 2017 received treatment in that year. That should come as no surprise to the Minister, when we know that the number of doctors working in child and adolescent psychiatry has fallen in every single month this year; that less than 1% of the NHS budget is spent on children’s mental health; and that CAMHS funding was cut in each of the four years following 2010.

Underfunding and the stripping back of provision in the name of austerity have led to a crisis in our schools, where £2.7 billion of budget cuts, an overriding focus on competition instead of collaboration, and fragmentation and marketisation of education, have left gaping holes in accountability, provision and support. In that environment, it is little wonder that children are not getting the support that they need.

The situation is far worse than that because, as we have already heard, on schools, the Government are acting in a manner that exacerbates poor mental health in children and young people. The Minister has said on the record:

“we do not want children to be under pressure with exams”,

and stated that nothing that his Department has done makes things worse. Yet children are being placed under unbearable pressure because of the high-stakes exam culture fostered by the Government, resulting in feelings of chronic low self-esteem and stress.

In a study commissioned by YoungMinds earlier this year, 82% of teachers said that the focus on exams had become disproportionate to the overall wellbeing of their students. Similar concerns have been raised by the Education Committee, while some headteachers said that their students had attempted suicide over exam pressures. Now that we have evidence, what will the Minister do to change that approach?

For children with special educational needs and disabilities, those feelings of low self-esteem are amplified. I know from my own experience of having dyspraxia that I suffered from low self-esteem and confidence and, as a result, I would often isolate myself. I cannot imagine how much more difficult it must be for the thousands of children with special educational needs who are missing out on support.

Today, the chief inspector of schools revealed the national scandal of 4,000 children with official education, health and care plans receiving literally no support at all. She also raised serious concerns about the children missing from the education system altogether. The Government have created an environment in which, to improve exam results and league table ratings, off-rolling and illegal exclusions are used at whim to such a degree that today, the chief inspector’s report identified a possibly 10,000 children who cannot be accounted for. As the Education Committee’s report noted:

“young people excluded from school or in alternative provision are…more likely to have a social, emotional and mental health need”.

Can the Minister explain what provision—beyond the review of alternative provision that is progress—is being made for those missing children, and when that review will be concluded?

Children now grapple with a range of issues that we in this Chamber did not face at their age, in particular the all-pervasive nature of social media, where bullying, abuse and grooming are no longer confined to the physical space. Some young people cannot escape and have no respite from the harm they endure online. I was pleased that, in the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, the Government bowed to pressure, but I would urge them to get moving on Personal, Social, Health and Economic education. A wealth of evidence suggests that it improves children’s resilience, wellbeing and safety, both online and offline.

In my former career, I saw the heartache and pain that delayed support and help could cause children, their families, their carers, and those who work with them, both in and out of the school environment; teenagers who regularly cut themselves or make attempts on their own lives because they were victims of child sexual exploitation; little boys and girls who had been so severely abused and neglected that they gouged out their own skin and spent their lessons rocking back and forth in an attempt to self-soothe; and children who had fled warzones, who were stoic and motionless in the playground and completely unable to interact with their peers.

As we discuss these matters, teachers, wider school staff, social workers, mental health workers, parents and carers will all be trying their absolute best for those children in the face of the worst cocktail of cuts—coupled with regressive policies—from the Government, right across the board. Those people, and the children and young people that they are fighting for, need to know what the Minister will do to halt that crisis now. I hope that he will not disappoint us all in his response.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Although we are a little ahead of schedule, before I call the Minister, I ask him to leave a minute or two at the end for the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) to sum up.

Holiday Hunger Schemes

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Tuesday 6th November 2018

(5 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The DVLA is in my constituency—

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

Order. I remind hon. Members, particularly hon. Members of long standing, to use parliamentary language. If they refer to “you” or “your”, it is me. It is a relaxed debate, but this is not the first time.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

The DVLA is in my constituency and I have yet to target its generosity on this matter, but my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) should have no fear—it is on my hit list.

Deaf Children’s Services

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Thursday 13th September 2018

(5 years, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - -

I draw Members’ attention to the fact that our proceedings are being made available for people who are deaf or hearing-impaired. The interpreters are using British Sign Language, and Parliament TV will show a live, simultaneous interpretation of the debate. We are also trialling live subtitling for the first time on channel 15 on parliamentlive.tv. I call Jim Fitzpatrick to move the motion.

Jim Fitzpatrick Portrait Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered deaf children’s services.

It is a pleasure to see you presiding over today’s debate, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for granting us time to raise this matter with the Minister. I look forward to his response and to those of the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), and the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley). I am also grateful to colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group on deafness, who supported the bid for the debate—it is good to see a number of them here. Finally, I am grateful to the House authorities for ensuring that, as you mentioned, Mr Stringer, the debate is transmitted live with signed simultaneous translation. Surely that is the future.

The title of the debate is “Deaf Children’s Services”. I intend to concentrate on educational support for deaf children, and I am grateful to the National Deaf Children’s Society for the briefing that will form the bulk of my comments.

Deaf children are 42% less likely to achieve the top grades than their hearing peers, but there is no reason a deaf child should do any worse than a hearing child if given the appropriate teaching. That is the historical perspective. The worry for the deaf community, and many colleagues here, is not only that the situation is deteriorating, but that it looks unlikely to improve.

In addition to their educational disadvantages, deaf children can be more susceptible to mental health issues. NHS England has said that around 40% of deaf children suffer from mental health problems, in contrast to 25% of hearing children. Continuing into adulthood, people with hearing loss are twice as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety-related issues. Investment in early life would likely lead to healthier adults, without the need for employment support or NHS attention.

The NDCS briefing predicts that more than a third of local authorities in England plan to cut £4 million from their budgets for education support for deaf children this year. At the same time, the number of teachers of the deaf, who provide vital support for deaf children, has fallen by 14% over the last seven years. Those figures are drawn from freedom of information requests, as detailed in the House of Commons Library briefing.

The NDCS “Stolen Futures” campaign is calling on the Government to step in and tackle that growing crisis. Cuts are putting the education of thousands of deaf children at risk, leaving their futures hanging in the balance. Vital services for deaf children must be adequately funded, both now and in the next spending review. That review has led to today’s debate.

There are more than 50,000 deaf children and young people in the United Kingdom. More than 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents who have no prior experience of deafness. Those parents rely on advice from specialist teachers of the deaf to support their child’s language and communication skills. Around 80% of deaf children attend mainstream schools, where they may be the only deaf child. Teachers of the deaf play a key role in helping all teachers to understand how to differentiate the curriculum and provide effective support.

Despite the fact that deafness itself is not a learning disability, deaf children underachieve throughout their education. That is demonstrated in the early years foundation stage, where only 34% of pre-school deaf children were reported as having achieved a good level of development, compared with 76% of other children. At key stage 2, less than half of deaf children achieved the expected standard for reading, compared with 80% of other children. At key stage 4, deaf children achieve, on average, a whole grade less in each GCSE subject than other children, and in recent years that attainment gap has widened. Finally, 41% of deaf young people achieved two A-levels or equivalent by the age of 19, compared with 65% of other young people.

Most deaf children do not have an education, health and care plan. The NDCS estimates that less than a fifth—19%—of deaf children have their support confirmed through a statutory EHC plan. The NDCS has been researching what is happening on the ground, and believes that services are clearly under threat. The NDCS has tracked local authority spending on specialist education services for deaf children since 2011. This year alone, more than a third of local authorities—37%—have told the NDCS that they plan to cut funding for those vital services. Deaf children in those areas will lose £4 million of support this year, with local authorities cutting 10% on average from deaf children’s services.

My own borough of Tower Hamlets, which is regarded as a model of excellence, has among the highest figures in England for hearing impairment and special educational needs and disability. It comments that it is difficult to make fair and equitable decisions for all children with special educational issues. The NDCS says that cuts are likely to affect my local services too, and believes that those cuts are being driven by wider pressure around SEND funding. I know that the Department for Education has protected high-needs funding to support children with SEND in cash terms, but I also know that the budget has not been adjusted to reflect several key aspects.

First, the number of children and young people requiring additional support is rising. Government figures show that more than 30,000 more children had statements or EHC plans in 2017 than in the previous year. Secondly, local authorities have greater responsibilities to support young people with SEND aged between 16 and 25, following the SEND reforms introduced through the Children and Families Act 2014. Since 2014, they have seen significant increases in the number of 16 to 25-year-olds with a statement of special educational needs or an EHC plan. Finally, there is a trend towards many more children being placed in special schools. The number of children in special schools rose by 12.5% between 2014 and 2017.

The NDCS has published more background material to back up its concerns, and the Local Government Association has also recognised the funding pressures, saying:

“we are calling for an urgent review of funding to meet the unprecedented rise in demand for support from children with special educational needs and disabilities.”

As we head towards the next spending review, the needs of some of the most vulnerable children in society must not be forgotten. A failure to invest in deaf children’s futures will likely result in a generation of lost potential.

The NDCS raised a number of issues with me that I know its representatives have already communicated to the Minister and his team. The Department responded that £6 billion is the highest budget on record. Nobody disputes that, but the demand outstrips the supply, and that is the fundamental question for the Minister to respond to. There is more money in the budget—it is the highest it has ever been—but the demand is even higher. I would be grateful if he would address those figures.

The NDCS has raised other issues and put forward some suggestions. For example, it wants to explore with the Department whether the ring fence on the schools block can be relaxed or removed. The national funding formula means that 99.5% of the schools block is now ring-fenced. The remaining 0.5% can be transferred to the high-needs block, which funds SEND support services, only with the agreement of the local schools forum.

That ring-fencing makes it harder for local authorities to move funding in response to growing SEND pressures, as evidenced by the large number of local authorities that have applied to the Department for permission to overrule the schools forum locally and/or go beyond the 0.5%. The NDCS understands that 27 local authorities made a formal request for disapplication of the ring fence, 15 of which were allowed to proceed. I would be grateful if the Minister could comment on those figures and on that principle. I would also welcome his views on whether there is more we can do to ensure that the local school forums include more representation around special educational needs and disabilities.

The NDCS wants the gaps in the specialised SEN workforce addressed. As I have described, teachers of the deaf play a key role in supporting deaf children, their families and other teachers. Where services are working well, they ensure that deaf children start primary school with age-appropriate language and communication skills and that they are effectively supported and included within mainstream schools. In 2017, there were 913 qualified teachers of the deaf working in a peripatetic role or in resource provision. That total has fallen by 14% in the past seven years. In addition, more than half of teachers of the deaf are over the age of 50 and hence are due to retire in the next 10 to 15 years. Many services are telling the NDCS that they cannot recruit. In 2017, 45% of services reported difficulties in recruiting new teachers of the deaf or arranging supply cover over the previous 12 months.

The NDCS believes a national systemic approach is needed to address this growing crisis. There is little incentive for local authorities to be proactive in ensuring there are sufficient numbers of teachers of the deaf being trained to meet future needs. Many will not be able to meet the financial cost of training new staff while also employing someone who has yet to retire. In 2016, the Department for Education commissioned a report from the National Sensory Impairment Partnership on the supply of specialist teachers, which recommended a central bursary scheme. However, the NDCS is not aware of any action taken in response, and I would be grateful if the Minister could indicate if there is any progress in that regard.

The NDCS asks whether there is a way to incentivise or even require local authorities to work together to commission more cost-effective services for deaf children. Given that deafness is a low-incidence need, it is important that local authorities, and particularly smaller authorities, work together to commission specialist services and provision. There are too many services employing just one or two teachers of the deaf, who are trying to meet the diverse needs of deaf children in their area. There are just nine consortiums delivering education support services for deaf children in England—the largest is in Berkshire. There has been no noticeable increase in recent years in the extent to which services and provision for deaf children are regionally commissioned. I would be grateful if the Minister might comment on that suggestion.

The NDCS welcomes the fact that the Department has asked Ofsted how schools can be better held to account for how they support children with SEND, but it has concerns about whether more could be done to strengthen the accountability framework around specialist services for deaf children.

Finally, the NDCS raises the question of a review of post-16 funding. SEND funding for mainstream post-16 providers is given where a young person has been commissioned a place, using high-needs funding. In practice, that means that, in many areas, colleges will receive funding for young people only if they have an EHC plan.

Government figures suggest that more than 85% of deaf young people do not have an EHC plan. If SEND funding is, in practice, restricted to those with an EHC plan, a large number of deaf young people are less likely to get the support they need to access the curriculum, such as a radio aid to help with additional amplification, or notetakers. In further education, deaf young people are twice as likely to drop out as their peers, and one quarter do not gain any qualification. Teachers of the deaf are unable to provide advice to mainstream college staff or support young people there, as they are not funded. Again, I would welcome comments from the Minister, and I hope he would be prepared to look at that point.

A number of individuals have been in touch with me directly. I apologise for not being able to mention their cases, but there is just not enough time—there are so many colleagues who want to contribute to this important debate. The House Facebook post for the debate was seen by nearly 64,000 accounts, had over 6,000 post clicks and 1,700-plus engagements covering funding, accessing support, good experiences, geographical differences and lack of understanding. There are some very poignant accounts, especially from parents. I hope the Minister has a chance to view them, if he has not done so already.

There are some very able deaf young people out there who can be huge assets to UK plc. If we do not allow them to develop—if we do not encourage and support them as they mature—we are not just denying them their birthright, but robbing our country of a significant contribution from some highly skilled and intelligent individuals. We owe them more than that.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. Eight people wish to speak in the debate, and we have 45 minutes. I am not going to impose a time limit straightaway. I hope people will do the arithmetic and follow that. If not, I will have to impose a time limit. I call Peter Aldous.

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Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. The resource bases in Suffolk, both in primary and secondary schools, are very popular and go down very well—the feedback from pupils who are not deaf is that they welcome the provision. They are incredibly proud of the young people in those units. The problem in Suffolk is that there are three resource bases at primary level—in Ipswich, Bury and Lowestoft—but at secondary level there is a resource base only in Bury St Edmunds. They need to be put out across the whole county, particularly in the north.

The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse is a champion for the deaf and the hard-of-hearing community, but it is important to highlight the sterling work of another such champion, Ann Jillings from Lowestoft, who has been working tirelessly with passion and determination to secure the best possible education for her son Daniel. In doing so, she is campaigning for other parents of deaf children in north Suffolk. Ann chairs the Waveney Deaf Children’s Society and, along with Daniel, has been campaigning for the introduction of a GCSE in British Sign Language as soon as possible. They made their case firmly and passionately but politely to the Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), at a meeting in March. I hope that the Department for Education will continue to do as much as it can to support the development of the new GCSE, and I would welcome the Minister’s reassurance on that point.

Daniel was born deaf. Following a diagnosis through the newborn hearing screening programme, Ann receives support from a person she describes as a “fantastic” teacher of the deaf, who acted as an advocate for the family as Daniel grew up. Daniel has been able to make excellent progress throughout his education. Ann is very clear that that is because of the support he received from specialist teachers of the deaf and communication support workers. That confirms that, provided that deaf children receive the right support from the start, there is no reason why they cannot thrive and break through any glass ceilings that get in their way.

Getting support for Daniel has been a challenge. Ann comments that she has fought tooth and nail for it, which has put the whole family under incredible stress. She highlights that it took 50 weeks to complete the transfer from a statement to an education, health and care plan—more than twice the statutory deadline. She points out that initially the local education authority did not agree with the advice that Daniel would need to continue to have support from a teacher of the deaf in his school. Only when she stated that she would take up her right of appeal was it accepted that a full-time teacher of the deaf was needed. She says:

“Getting the support for your deaf child is a battle which parents should not have to fight, and I do wonder what happens to the children whose parents cannot persevere in the same way as we have.”

I have got a lot to say, Mr Stringer, but I sense I am preventing others from speaking.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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To help the hon. Gentleman, there were roughly five and a half minutes for everybody if they self-allocated. He has now been speaking for six and a half minutes.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous
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Thank you for guiding me, Mr Stringer. I will cut to the chase and conclude with what I said at the end of the debate on deafness and hearing loss in this Chamber last November. Many barriers have been placed in Ann Jillings’s way in her pursuit of better education for Daniel. It is our duty and the duty of Government and local authorities to remove those barriers as soon as possible. Thank you for bearing with me, Mr Stringer.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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It is probably easier if I impose a five-minute time limit on speeches.

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Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) for securing the debate, not least because it gives me an opportunity to present the cases of the many constituents who have been in touch about this issue. They and I are grateful for that opportunity.

I am privileged to have Elmfield School for Deaf Children in my constituency. It provides specialist services to early years and primary pupils in a specialist setting, but it has plans to integrate those into a mainstream setting. It also provides a secondary service, which is already integrated into Fairfield High School, a mainstream school in my constituency. Elmfield provides a full range of services, with signed bilingual educational approaches and an individual language profile for each pupil. I will say in a second why that is so important. However, like other schools, Elmfield struggles to meet demand. In the south-west, where there are more than 3,000 deaf pupils, there has been a 16% drop in the number of fully qualified teachers of the deaf and a 12% drop in the number of teachers training for that role. That is why, in Bristol and other places with vacancies, there are no guarantees that those specialist positions will be filled.

I picked two sets of constituents—Mr and Mrs Ward, and Mr and Mrs Bolton—at random from a number of families who got in touch with me. I thank them for doing so, and I will spend the rest of my speech telling their stories. Ella is the daughter of Mr and Mrs Bolton. She is in year 1 and is six years old. She has moderate hearing loss, which was diagnosed at birth, and wears hearing aids in both ears. I have met Ella, and her mum rightly describes her as a

“confident, creative, brave girl, who loves learning.”

She is bright and is expected to do well. However, because of the level of her hearing loss and the fact she appears to cope well in school, her disability is often overlooked when she is in a mainstream setting. The perception that it is not a serious condition or that she is coping or performing well means that the provision she requires to fulfil her potential is often missed. Ella has to put extra effort into hearing in the classroom, which gives her concentration fatigue. Because she has to focus so much on her teachers to be able to engage, on most days she is exhausted when she comes home. Her mum says it takes Ella until Sunday evening to fully recover before she starts again on the Monday morning.

Mrs Bolton says that deafness is not naturally understood by teachers, even with the best will in the world. Ella is an example of why specialist provision is required so much. However, as has already been said, this issue is not just about young people; it is about their families, too. Mrs Bolton told me how teachers of the deaf had helped the family come to terms with having a child who was deaf and with how best to support Ella at home and school. She wrote that teachers of the deaf played

“a pivotal role in providing and coordinating support and promoting deaf awareness”

among other staff and providers to Ella, and to the family.

Oli, the Ward family’s son, is much older and further down the track. They wrote that he had “a very mixed journey”, and that it felt like his choices narrowed and became more limited as he got older and progressed through the system. Mrs Ward says that specialist teachers of the deaf made a huge difference to Oli everywhere he went, not just in terms of education provision but in the way he navigated life socially in a mainstream setting. She says that teachers of the deaf were his lifeline on many occasions.

Oli moved around between specialist and mainstream provision while he was in secondary school, which caused him difficulties. Mrs Ward said she was told by a teacher that her son had outstanding GCSE results “for a deaf child.” She rightly makes the point that that should not be a distinction—just because someone is deaf does not mean a C is an outstanding grade for them if they have the potential to achieve an A. Mrs Ward wrote:

“Teachers of the deaf navigate schools and classrooms…in no end of subtle and clever ways”

to get the best out of her child, Oli, and so many other children, whom we want to flourish and do well.

I look forward to the Minister’s answers. There is cross-party support for getting this right. He has heard the stories of my constituents and those of local authorities on the frontline, which are really struggling to do the best, not just for children who are deaf but, as we have heard, for children with special educational needs. Many of my constituents face a struggle to get EHC plans in place, and schools cannot really afford to top up the money they get. This is a real slog. Parents, teachers and local authority staff are passionate about getting the best provision for deaf children and children with special needs to allow them to flourish, and I look forward to hearing how the Minister will help them do that.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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The restraint on interventions and speeches means that we have gained a couple of minutes, so the Front-Bench spokespeople will have a generous 10 minutes each. I call Angela Crawley.

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Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Lewell-Buck
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The SEND reforms are a topic I will refer to later in my speech, but my hon. Friend leads me aptly to my next point. When funding and support are denied in cases such as the ones we are talking about today, education is also denied.

In his response, the Minister will likely refer to the funding given to the National Sensory Impairment Partnership and other bodies, but that money does not address the falling number of teachers of the deaf. Having British Sign Language-trained teachers is vital to deaf children, a point that was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), but some areas have only one specialist teacher per 100 students. I was sorry to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) that that scarcity of teachers is the same in Northern Ireland, although I should say to him that I always follow every single word he says, and I love listening to his speeches.

None of that should come as any shock, since our schools are facing the first real-terms funding cuts in 20 years, with £2.8 billion cut from their budgets since 2015. As always in these austere times, specialist provision is the first to go. Bamburgh School is a specialist school in my constituency, which is now in the unenviable position of having to pay out of an existing budget for its existing teachers to learn BSL level 1 on a 30-week course, which will take the school into a deficit. On top of that, these dedicated teachers are completing the course in what little free time they have. However, their equally dedicated headteacher, Peter Nord, told me that he has a duty to the children he teaches, who, without BSL, would not get the full learning experience they deserve.

Not every deaf child or school will have a head and teachers as dedicated as we have at Bamburgh or the Elmfield School for Deaf Children in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones). I wonder what will happen to those children. I appreciate that a review of the SEND workforce in schools is under way, but a report commissioned by the Department and published over two and a half years ago has already identified a drastic shortage of deaf teachers. Instead of yet another review to give the appearance of doing something, can the Minister please advise us when there might be a response to the review that was done nearly three years ago, and what the timescales are for the current ongoing review?

The decrease in support is taking place against the backdrop of an increasing number of children requiring it. In just the last year, the number of deaf children increased by 11%. Earlier this year, it was shown that the attainment gap between deaf children and hearing children has widened—the figures were ably shared with us by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist).

Sadly, Government neglect of deaf children continues throughout their education, with post-16 funding bearing no resemblance at all to the number of deaf pupils without an EHC plan. Just last year, it was revealed that some county councils in England charge 16 to 19-year-old SEND students £1,500 a year for their transport. Since 2015, students have been required to pay a £200 contribution towards the cost of certain essential equipment that used to be covered by the disabled students’ allowance.

Parents have told me that support often only comes with an EHC plan, yet we have heard that most deaf children do not have such plans. Those who do, as outlined by the hon. Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous), have to fight, and suffer the exhaustion of taking on, the might of their local authorities. A recent damning report by the local government and social care ombudsman found that children and young people were missing out on provision, with health often a missing factor.

As we heard, 80% of deaf children and young people are not on EHC plans and rely on SEND support from their local authorities, which authorities struggle to provide following savage cuts that have resulted in up to 40,000 deaf children in England having no support at all. Deaf children and young people also remain stubbornly over-represented in alternative provision and exclusion figures. Schools, headteachers, support staff and parents work tirelessly every day under ever-challenging circumstances to give our deaf children the very best education, which they deserve. The Minister should be doing the same, and I look forward to his letting us know his plans.

I will end with a quick quote from Thomas Bailey, a 16-year-old pupil from Bamburgh School in South Shields. He sums up far better than I or anybody here could the damaging impact of the Government’s policies:

“Being deaf makes me feel depressed and very frustrated. Having no support in school is very mean. When I don’t have support, I don’t have that person to repeat and break down that information for me and to sign important key words, so I am not able to learn the same as other children in class. I feel left out. Improving equipment would make the sound easier and clearer for me to hear, but having no equipment makes everything very quiet and unclear. This means I’m not getting any important information, leaving me feeling annoyed and again left out. My life and learning becomes a blank.”

The Minister should know that, unless he takes urgent action, the despair and emptiness so well articulated by Thomas will continue to be felt by more and more deaf children across our country.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Before I call the Minister, I remind him that it would be helpful if he left a couple of minutes for the debate’s sponsor to wind up.

Ofsted

Graham Stringer Excerpts
Wednesday 10th December 2014

(9 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) on securing this important debate. He has made a compelling case for ensuring the accountability of Ofsted. He has given a number of examples where it has fallen short and made arbitrary and subjective decisions.

Of course, Ofsted inspects not only schools but whole children’s departments and the protection and care of children. I will talk about a report that Ofsted produced on Manchester city council’s children’s department on 1 September, but first I want to reiterate what the hon. Gentleman said: inspection and monitoring are vital parts of public services. They are necessary parts of the accountability process, and it is important that we get them right and understand what is happening.

It is also important that the metrics are right. I will give just one example of how difficult metrics can be. When the Conservative Government in the early ’90s brought in metrics to measure the performance of planning departments and introduce a level of accountability, they said that planning applications should be determined within 40 days, and if they were not, the department concerned was seen to be failing. I was leader of Manchester city council then, and our average time for turning applications round was about 43 days. We were very pleased with that, because there were very few appeals against our decisions. As a lot of work was put in beforehand, the decisions were often better and all parties were happy. However, an arbitrary metric misguided the public as to the competence of the department.

One also has to look at who the inspectors are. My guess is that people do not start out life deciding to be an inspector of planning or an Ofsted inspector. Ofsted inspectors probably start off in child protection of some sort, as a social worker, or as a teacher. Sometimes they become inspectors because they have not done so well, or have failed, in those professions, and sometimes it is because they want more money, but my experience is that as a result they often have a jaundiced view of the inspection process. One has to be wary, and aware that that is a possibility, when looking at how effective these inspections are and what the accountability should be.

I will talk about Manchester’s children’s services department, but I want to place on the record that this is not a defence of that department. I have been concerned about a number of areas; I have written to the council; and I have published statistics that did not show the council in the best light with regard to what happened to referred children, because often they were not dealt with quickly enough, and in some cases they were not dealt with at all.

I have expressed public concern about referred children. I knew of a number of cases where the culture of the department had inhibited the fostering and adoption of children: the process was too lengthy; people had not turned up on time, or at all, to interview potential foster parents and adoptive parents; and interviewers often asked questions that were intrusive and—to my mind, and the minds of the potential foster and adoptive parents—irrelevant. So this is not a mindless defence of Manchester city council’s children’s department from an ex-leader of that department. It is really a case of asking whether we understand more about what is going on in the children’s department after Ofsted’s inspection.

On 1 September, Ofsted said in its report that for

“Children who need help and protection”

the service is “inadequate”. Similarly, it said that for

“Children looked after and achieving permanence”

the service “requires improvement”. Adoption performance was judged “inadequate”, and

“Experiences and progress of care leavers”

also “requires improvement”. Finally, it said that “Leadership, management and governance” were “inadequate”. That is not a glowing report. It was produced by eight inspectors over a period of about five or six weeks, and it must have been quite expensive.

Having complained about the department previously, I went to the report with some interest, but I have to say—this is the core of my contribution—that I was extremely disappointed. The department had had inspections in 2010, 2011 and 2013. The 2013 inspection was on fostering, the 2011 inspection was on adoption, and the 2010 inspection was on safeguarding looked-after children. Those inspections produced two “good” ratings and one “adequate” rating, so they were not cause for concern. However, as there had now been a report giving an “inadequate” rating, I wanted to look at numbers, to see exactly how the service had deteriorated during the period in question.

Although there were some numbers in the report, they were absolute numbers, telling us how many single assessments had not progressed, for example—there was a number in the report for that. However, that was not compared with any of the previous reports, and the comments were generally things such as “slow”, “quality of care record keeping: not good”, “could do better”, “too long to get help” or “too many children waiting for help”. Not only were there not absolute numbers but it was not possible to compare the numbers in the report with those in previous reports.

There was one particularly odd thing. It was not really a metric, but a comment that too many of the looked-after children did not go to good schools. The report did not say how many of the schools in Manchester were good and whether it was possible for all the looked-after children to go to them.

I wrote to Ofsted and asked if it could produce the comparative tables that would enable me to see if the department had gone backwards or forwards, and to see what the situation was that had justified the change to “inadequate”. Ofsted replied to me within about a fortnight; I have no complaint about its speed of response. The response was from Jo Morgan, Ofsted’s regional director, north-west. She said that it was not possible to produce those tables and she gave the reasons why. I will quote from her letter:

“The recent inspection differs from previous inspections as it has a different methodology. It is therefore not possible to make any direct comparisons between judgements. The current single inspection framework is an unannounced universal inspection. It is conducted in a three year cycle and judges local authority services for looked after children, alongside the arrangements to protect children. Ofsted acknowledges that the ‘bar’ has been raised in two ways. Firstly, ‘good’ is now the minimum acceptable standard. The new framework sets out the criteria for ‘good’ in respect of the protection of children, the care they receive, and the arrangements in place to lead and manage services. Any local authority that is unable to provide evidence that the characteristics of good are in place will be will be deemed to ‘require improvement’. The second aspect of our raising the ‘bar’ relates to our explicit and unrelenting focus on both the experiences of children, young people and families and the difference that the help they receive makes to their lives and life chances. Whilst it is recognised that this methodology presents a challenge to local authorities, our priority remains the contribution inspection can make to the help, protection and care of vulnerable children and young people.”

The philosophy behind that is sound, but if the local authority and anybody interested in what is happening are to know whether those serious criteria are being met, they have to be able to measure things and put numbers on them, but the letter and the report make no attempt to do that. Therefore, when Ofsted says that the methodology presents a challenge to local authorities, I would say it makes it impossible for them to know, other than in terms of a generalised report, why they are succeeding or failing. Unless a percentage or a rate of improvement is given for the speed at which children are assessed when they are referred to the local authority, or for the number of children placed in foster care or accepted for adoption, it is difficult for the authority to know what is happening.

Ofsted is failing in terms of inspectors’ basic task of enabling those who want to hold it to account to do so. One does not have to be too cynical to say that in Rotherham, Rochdale and, previously, Haringey, and a number of the other terrible situations we have seen in many of our towns and cities where children were not properly protected by the local authority, the police and others who should have been looking after them, Ofsted had given virtually all the local authorities involved a clean bill of health. After Rotherham was given a clean bill of health, we found that 1,400 children had been abused. From memory—I did not look it up—Haringey had been given an excellent rating before the baby P case.

Christopher Chope Portrait Mr Chope
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The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Does he share my hope that the Minister will be able to explain how Ofsted was held to account for its manifest failures of judgment in those cases?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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I am looking forward to the Minister’s reply to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution and mine. After those awful events, I am led to the conclusion that, when Ofsted raises the bar, as it puts it, without giving quantified criteria, it is engaged in an exercise that is about not inspection and the accountability of child protection services, but the protection of Ofsted. If Ofsted says that Manchester city council or some other local authority is inadequate or requires improvement, and something terrible happens—I sincerely hope it does not—Ofsted is not to blame, whereas it clearly could be blamed for the reports it gave on the authorities I mentioned earlier. What we are seeing is not an inspection regime that helps us to understand whether our children are being protected, but one that puts out a lot of propaganda for its own protection. I look forward to the Minister’s response.