23 May 2022
Education Questions

Nadhim Zahawi, Secretary of State for Education, answers questions from MPs.

Nadhim Zahawi MP speaking in the House of Commons


The Secretary of State was asked—

Low-Performing Areas: Education Funding

Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con)

1. What steps his Department is taking to increase funding for education in low-performing areas. (900160)

Julie Marson (Hertford and Stortford) (Con)

9. What steps his Department is taking to invest in education in low-performing areas (900168)

Paul Holmes (Eastleigh) (Con)

13. What steps his Department is taking to invest in education in low-performing areas. (900172)

Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)

23. What steps his Department is taking to invest in education in low-performing areas. (900182)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our well wishes to the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), as she is fighting covid and, I am sure, will defeat it.

To help all pupils to achieve their potential, I have increased core schools funding by £4 billion, which is a 7% increase in cash terms per pupil this year, in 2022-23; and I have directed—flexed—£2.6 billion of that funding towards low prior attainment children through the national funding formula.

Scott Benton 

The additional funding that schools in Blackpool receive through our status as an opportunity area and an education investment area will make a real difference on the ground. However, headteachers often raise with me the problem of digital exclusion when pupils are at home due to a lack of IT equipment, which obviously puts pupils from lower-income families at a comparative disadvantage. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that pupils from low-income backgrounds do not lose out due to digital exclusion?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I am working to ensure that every school has access to high-speed broadband connectivity by 2025. Priority schools in education improvement areas will be able to access our £150 million programme to upgrade their internal network infrastructure. During the pandemic, as my hon. Friend highlighted from his teachers’ point of view, many children did not have access to technology for learning at home, so we provided devices, wi-fi and data to disadvantaged students to support digital inclusion at home.

Julie Marson 

I am supporting my Bishop’s Stortford constituents’ “Turn on the Subtitles” campaign to improve children’s literacy across the board, but particularly in low-performing areas. Raj Chande, the director of Nesta’s “A Fairer Start” mission, said that the campaign’s evidence is compelling, and it has Nesta’s seal of approval—an important endorsement. Therefore, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to invest in the campaign by reviewing its mass of evidence, and will he encourage parents and children to turn on the subtitles?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I have set out in the White Paper that we share the commitment to raising literacy standards, as I am sure the whole House does, and we want to ensure that all children can read fluently and with that understanding. I thank Henry Warren and Oli Barrett MBE for their commitment to improving literacy levels, and they have championed that campaign. It is a choice for parents and guardians whether their child watches television and whether they do so with the subtitles on, but it certainly makes a difference in the Zahawi household.

Paul Holmes 

Does the Secretary of State agree that as well as funding, data and transparency matter so that we can monitor things, act quickly and see that the plans that we have announced are working to improve schools right across Eastleigh?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I never tire of saying that data and transparency are our greatest allies in improving educational outcomes. We are absolutely focused on delivering against the ambitious targets that we have set for skills, schools and families, and on holding ourselves in the Department against them. Sharing our plans and performance data is a key lever to drive rapid improvement through the complex system that we oversee in education. I have committed to publishing a delivery plan setting out what we will achieve and a performance dashboard showing progress, and I want teachers and school leaders to do the same on behaviour, absenteeism and, of course, standards.

Nick Fletcher 

Does the Minister agree that the future of children’s education in the now city of Doncaster has never been brighter due to the excellent steps taken by this Government, the fantastic schools in Don Valley and the roll-out of my role models project on the ground, which shows young people all the career opportunities? With that in mind, will the Minister agree to come to Don Valley and see for himself the good work that is being done?

Nadhim Zahawi 

My hon. Friend is certainly a role model in how he has celebrated Doncaster becoming a city. I am delighted that the role models project is connecting schools in Don Valley to local professionals; it is inspiring and informative for young people to hear about the career journeys of role models and to learn about all the excellent career opportunities available to them in Doncaster. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend and seeing the project for myself.

Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

Does the Secretary of State agree that any increases in funding for schools should be spent on teaching and learning, not on propping up failing energy companies? In an average primary school, £30,000 more—the cost of a teacher—is being spent on energy. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it? Will he include nurseries and early years settings in his assessment?

Nadhim Zahawi 

The 7% increase on last year, in cash terms, that we secured at the spending review for this year includes significant additional funding that allows us headroom, but the hon. Lady is right to highlight the point. Energy represents about 1.4% to 1.5% of schools’ budgets, but because of the energy spike, schools that are out of contract have seen that proportion increase to 7%, 8% or 9%. We are keeping a close eye on the matter. The one message that I would like the hon. Lady and every other hon. Member to take away to their schools is to get in touch with us if they are close to coming out of contract, because we can really help.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)

May I take the chance to congratulate Stockport children’s services on their “good” Ofsted rating?

I am really concerned at the lack of progress in educational attainment, particularly at secondary level, in schools in parts of my constituency across Stockport and Tameside. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all parents have the choice of schools with good performance and that children have the opportunities that a good education can bring?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I know that the hon. Gentleman and I share the same passion in what we want for every child. I do not believe that children in Stockport are less talented than children in South Kensington; they have just not had the same opportunity of a great teacher in every classroom in every school. I am determined to deliver that through the White Paper.

I join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the inspection result for Stockport children’s services; they have done a phenomenal job. I hope that he will be in the Chamber for the statement by the Children and Families Minister—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—about Josh MacAlister’s very important review, which has been published today.

Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

You will understand, Mr Speaker, how disturbed I was to learn that Highland Council schools have been ranked as the worst in the whole of Scotland for numeracy and literacy among P1, P4 and P7 pupils. These children are our future. We used to be proud of Scottish education. Will the Government share their best practice with the Scottish Government so that this scandal is sorted out?

Nadhim Zahawi 

That is concerning, I have to say, because although education is devolved, we care about the whole United Kingdom. I am very happy to share our work through the education White Paper and the education Bill, and what we are doing on skills, with T-levels and the lifelong learning entitlement. I worry that Scottish children are being let down. It feels as if Scotland is in freefall down the league tables of the programme for international student assessment.

Mr Speaker 

We now come to the shadow Minister.

Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)

I am more interested in the Government’s record on academic inequality than in their rhetoric. The annual review of education by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals that since 2010, the most deprived secondary schools have suffered a 14% cut in spending, while for the most affluent schools the figure is just 9%. The new national funding formula makes the disparity worse. The Government’s 10 years of further education cuts also fell harder on poorer students. We all know that the Government stand against aspiration for deprived children and are increasing inequality, as those figures show. Why do they not at least have the courage to admit it?

Nadhim Zahawi 

The hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points, but they are completely misguided. He speaks with great passion, but without looking at the evidence before us. The past 12 years demonstrate that schools have been on an improvement journey. When we came into office, only two thirds of schools could achieve a good or outstanding rating; the figure is now 86%. My predecessors’ work on skills has taken investment in the skills agenda up to £3.8 billion. When we talk to teachers and school leaders around the country, they know that the White Paper will deliver great outcomes for every child. We have set our ambitions high for children all over the country; we know how to get there, and we will deliver.

Mr Speaker 

I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, Carol Monaghan.

Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)

I was sorry to hear about the Minister for Higher and Further Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), and I wish her a speedy recovery.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will join me in wishing all the young people throughout the United Kingdom who are currently sitting their national exams the best of success.

The Secretary of State has praised private schools, including Eton, for building free schools in places such as Oldham, which, according to him, need that investment in education. Can he confirm that it is now Government policy to rely on private school investment where Government funds have been lacking?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we should send our congratulations to the brilliant teachers who have delivered the 650,000 pupils who have taken their key stage 2 standard assessment tests this month. Students began taking their A-levels and GCSEs last Monday, and 3 million individual test scripts have been returned for marking. That is a great achievement after two years of being stuck with covid.

The hon. Lady asked about funding. This Government will be putting £56.5 billion into our school system. We have a plan, which is well evidenced, for delivering a great school with a great teacher for every classroom in the country. Scotland has no plan, and is in freefall in the international league tables.


Political Impartiality in Schools

Gareth Bacon (Orpington) (Con)

3. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure political impartiality in schools. (900162)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

The law is clear that schools must remain politically impartial. I know that colleagues on all sides of the House relish going into schools for hustings during elections. Children need to learn about the yellow team, the blue team, the red team and the green team, but I recognise that some issues can be challenging to deal with, so my Department has recently published clear, comprehensive guidance to help teachers tackle sensitive issues in the classroom in a politically impartial way.

Gareth Bacon 

In April this year, members of the National Education Union claimed that it was somehow impossible to teach history in a balanced manner. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that some children are at risk of being indoctrinated by political activists masquerading as teachers? Will he bring forward powers in the new Schools Bill to strike off those who repeatedly fail to comply with impartiality guidelines?

Nadhim Zahawi 

Our knowledge-rich history curriculum requires teaching methods of historical inquiry. We should be teaching children how to think, not what to think, including how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims and discerning how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed. Our guidance supports this, and schools already have powers to take disciplinary action where teachers repeatedly breach their legal duties.


Alternative Student Finance: Muslim Students

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab)

5. What progress his Department has made on developing an alternative student finance product for Muslim students. (900164)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

We remain committed to delivering alternative student finance, and we are currently considering if and how it can be delivered as part of the lifelong loan entitlement.

Stephen Timms 

It is estimated that 4,000 Muslim students a year do not go into higher education because there is no finance available that is compatible with their faith. David Cameron promised to fix this nine years ago. A good deal of work was done, but it seems to have run into the sand in the past few years. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for reaffirming the Government’s commitment to delivering on David Cameron’s promise, but can he give us an indication of how much longer Muslim students will have to wait?

Nadhim Zahawi 

We will provide a further update on alternative student finance as part of our response to the LLE consultation, which closed earlier this month.


Student Loan Interest Payments

Simon Baynes (Clwyd South) (Con)

6. What steps his Department is taking to limit student loan interest payments. (900165)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

Monthly student loan repayments are based on income, not interest rates, meaning that no one will see their monthly repayment increase due to interest rates. From September, we have reformed the student loan system so that new borrowers will not repay more in real terms than they originally borrowed—that is fair.

Simon Baynes 

The level of student loan interest rates is of great importance to students, past and present, in my constituency, half of which is in the new city of Wrexham. Will my right hon. Friend provide further detail on how we can apply a sustainable downward pressure to student loan interest rates in future?

Nadhim Zahawi 

That is an important question, and I fully recognise the concerns of students and their parents about increasing interest rates. I am looking actively at how we can mitigate that, and we will be setting it out shortly. I emphasise again that no one’s monthly repayment will increase due to higher interest rates, which is an important point to make when people’s budgets are tight.


Violence Against Women on University Campuses

Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)

8. What steps he is taking to help prevent violence against women on university campuses. (900167)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

Violence against women is unacceptable, and we must pursue a zero-tolerance culture. I have written to the Office for Students to make clear my view that it should make tackling sexual misconduct a binding condition of universities’ registration. I have also launched a pledge that commits universities to not using non-disclosure agreements to silence victims of sexual harassment. Fifty-three providers have so far made the pledge, and we expect many more to follow.

Fleur Anderson 

We are far from zero tolerance at the moment. As a parent of two daughters who have attended or are attending two different universities, I have seen that universities are not safe spaces. Research shows that between two thirds and three quarters of female students, and 70% of female university and college staff, have experienced sexual violence.

The president of the University of Roehampton’s students union has been in regular contact with me about incidents there and about how the local police’s hands are tied because sexual harassment is not a crime, so they cannot take action. There are many factors. Will the Secretary of State go further and commission a review of sexual violence on campuses across our country and take more action to make our campuses safe?

Nadhim Zahawi 

Universities UK published a report a couple of years ago assessing the sector’s progress on tackling gender-based violence, harassment and hate crime. It showed some progress had been made, but only 72% of responding institutions had developed or improved the recording of data on harassment. I need them to go much further, and we will keep everything on the table. I am determined that we get to where the hon. Lady and I both want to get. I am the father of a nine-year-old girl who will one day go to college or, I hope, take a degree apprenticeship. A zero-tolerance culture must be delivered.


Freedom of Speech in Education

Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

10. What progress he has made on helping to protect freedom of speech in education. (900169)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

The Government maintain our commitment to the protection of free speech and academic freedom in universities with the reintroduction of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill following the Queen’s Speech on 10 May.

Sir John Hayes 

As the Secretary of State says, it is right and just that we are in the vanguard of the fight for free speech. As the Bill that will ensure that progresses through the House, however, the backdrop against which we debate it is disturbing, with universities continuing to use the Equality Act 2010 to elevate the fear of disturbance or distress above the ability of free speech to inspire, enthral and move the academic agenda forward. The case of Dr Sarkar at the University of Oxford is a recent sad example, but it is by no means exceptional. Will the Secretary of State, before the Bill reaches the statute book, conduct a review of free speech policies at universities, and, if necessary, issue fresh guidance to ensure that academics and students in those universities can speak freely? [Interruption.]

Nadhim Zahawi 

I shall attempt to be pithy, Mr Speaker.

The Government and I are clear that issues such as antisemitism are abhorrent, but universities and students’ unions must balance their legal duties, including freedom of speech and tackling harassment. The Bill will place duties directly on students’ unions to secure freedom of speech for staff, students and visiting speakers. No one should fear expressing lawful views.


Dyslexia and other Neurodivergent Conditions

Matt Hancock (West Suffolk) (Con)

14. What steps his Department is taking to help improve (a) early identification of, (b) teacher training in and (c) support for pupils with dyslexia and other neurodivergent conditions in primary schools. (900173)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

Our ambition, which I know my right hon. Friend shares, is that we will level up opportunities for all children and young people. That is why I have published the Schools White Paper and the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper, which sets out our plans to better identify children at risk of falling behind and then provide them with the support they need. That includes those with neurodivergent conditions

Matt Hancock 

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer and for the work that he has done. The White Paper and the SEND review have gone down very well, but they are about the direction of travel; we need to get to the destination. Will he confirm the need for a universal approach to screening for neurodiverse conditions and will he also congratulate those who are doing good work already such as those at Laureate Community Academy in Exning in Newmarket, which I visited earlier this month?

Nadhim Zahawi 

The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince), will be hosting a roundtable meeting this summer to discuss the different approaches being taken around the country, where I hope we will learn from some of those people—as my right hon. Friend knows, I will always be the evidence-led Secretary of State. Early intervention is important, and the SEND and alternative provision Green Paper will deliver that. Moreover, the parent pledge in the Schools White Paper is a lever for teachers to identify those children with dyslexia and dyspraxia and to put that help in place.


Severely Absent Pupils

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)

16. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of his Department’s steps to help return severely absent pupils to school. (900175)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

My schools White Paper and new attendance guidance set out how we expect schools and local authorities to support severely absent pupils so that they can attend regularly. We also recently launched a live data trial for schools, trusts and local authorities, enabling them to target support at pupils who need it most.

Robert Halfon 

My right hon. Friend rightly says that he is driven by the data, and I thank him for the work he is doing to try to get these children back to school. The Centre for Social Justice suggests that 13,000 children in critical exam years were severely absent in the autumn term 2020, and FFT Education Datalab suggests that 5% of pupils were severely absent from September to May this year. What data are the Government collecting on children in exam years who have been severely absent, and what is being done to bring them back to school and to ensure that they get targeted tuition through the catch-up programme?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I am delighted to confirm that, as my right hon. Friend knows, we are bringing forward legislative measures to establish a local authority registration system, but that is for the future. Those GCSE, AS-level and A-level students sitting exams this year have been given advance information to help them focus, and to give them the confidence to come in and take exams this year. We are also working to make sure that the alliance of national leaders across education is doing everything it can to deal with persistent absenteeism, and to make sure that all children are in school, which is the best place for them to be.


Topical Questions

Mark Fletcher (Bolsover) (Con)

T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (900150)

The Secretary of State for Education (Nadhim Zahawi)

The United Kingdom’s education export was estimated at over £25 billion in 2019. I am delighted that 132 Education Ministers from 110 countries around the world are in town today to join us at the Education World Forum this week.

We all want to congratulate all those students sitting exams. Hundreds of thousands have already sat their exams, including 650,000 taking key stage 2 standard assessment tests. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing them very well.

In the platinum jubilee year, 4.5 million primary school children in schools in England and Northern Ireland will receive a hardback book, as will those in schools in Scotland and Wales who opt in. In some homes there are no books, and those children will take home this beautiful book about Her Majesty’s reign and the Commonwealth.

Mark Fletcher 

Last week I received an email from a parent on Holbeck Avenue in Bolsover, saying:

“There is no 6th form available at The Bolsover School and so pupils wishing to do A levels have an expensive bus ride in order to get anywhere. For instance it costs around £650 a year if your child is successful to get a place at St Mary’s High School in Chesterfield and the choice of courses at Chesterfield college are quite limited.”

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share my passion for ensuring post-16 education in the Bolsover constituency?

Nadhim Zahawi 

My hon. Friend and I met on 9 May to discuss access to the full range of post-16 education in his constituency. I asked my officials to look into the matters raised at that meeting. I know my hon. Friend is a champion of this issue and has looked at the evidence, and I will write to him very shortly.

Mr Speaker 

I call shadow Secretary of State Bridget Phillipson.

Bridget Phillipson (Houghton and Sunderland South) (Lab)

The Schools Bill gives the Secretary of State sweeping powers over the operation of our schools. Does that mean that he recognises that the Government’s approach to school improvement over the past 12 years has failed?

Nadhim Zahawi 

Quite the opposite. The hon. Lady clearly does not follow the evidence. If she looked at it, she would see that families of schools in high-performing multi-academy trusts have delivered better outcomes for their students. Whether they are Church of England schools, Catholic schools or grammar schools, they are all joining us on this journey, and I invite her to do the same.

Bridget Phillipson 

Headteachers are telling us they are having to cut back on staffing, school trips, and even pens and paper. As costs soar and the national insurance rise comes into effect, the Secretary of State is still failing to invest in our children’s recovery. Experts have lined up to tell him the damage his inaction will cause, not just to our children’s future but to Britain’s future success. What will it take to convince him to put our children first?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I do not know whether the hon. Lady was listening when I talked about the 7% cash increase in the budget for schools this year compared with last year—that is £4 billion going to our schools. By 2024 we will be investing £56.5 billion in education. Of course money makes a difference, but if she visits Hammersmith Academy she will meet a great leadership team who are delivering for their students—60% of whom get the pupil premium—because leadership matters. I wish her luck in her leadership campaign.


Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)

T9. The decision to scrap grammar schools was once described as “a real tragedy for this country…they are a very important part of the mix in our educational system…and they should be supported”.I completely agree with the Prime Minister and I am glad that the Secretary of State is also so supportive, saying that he wants to “spread the DNA” of grammar schools across the education system and give them a special status to retain academic selection in the upcoming Schools Bill, but it is not right that children in Teesside and Stoke-on-Trent do not the same opportunities as a child in Kent or Stratford-upon-Avon, so will the Government support my right hon. Friend— (900158)

Mr Speaker 

Order. Mr Gullis, I told you to be short, but you obviously cannot. Secretary of State.

Nadhim Zahawi 

The Schools Bill will protect grammar schools. However, we have 165 grammar schools, and 90 of them are already playing their part in those families of schools in multi-academy trusts. We have a system with 22,000 schools. I mentioned Gary Kynaston’s brilliant leadership of Hammersmith Academy. My hon. Friend should go and have a look at Michaela and what Katharine Birbalsingh has done there. That is—


Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)

Last Friday was the 36th anniversary of the rebel amendment in the House of Lords proposed by Lady Cox, which banned the indoctrination of schoolchildren with partisan political views. Does the Secretary of State accept that the concept of anti-nuclear education, and of anti-imperialist education, which led to that ban, are to be compared with the concepts of vicious identity politics and of the decolonisation of subjects, which rightly fall foul of the legislation he cited?

Nadhim Zahawi 

My right hon. Friend raises a very powerful point, and he is quite right: children should be taught how to think, not what to think.


Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)

The Church of England and the Catholic Church run a third of schools in England. How does the Secretary of State plan to improve that partnership even further for the benefit of all children?

Nadhim Zahawi 

The Church of England and the Catholic Church have been partners on the journey of the White Paper. They are already making ambitious plans to deliver what we all want to see—great schools where children get a great education in the classroom wherever they live in the country.


Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)

Does the Secretary of State support the chair of the Office for Students’ endorsement of Viktor Orbán, including his approach to academic freedom in higher education?

Nadhim Zahawi 

I support the chair of the Office for Students for all the work that he is doing to improve outcomes for students in our universities.