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Education Committee 

Oral evidence: Accountability hearings, HC 58

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Ordered by the House of Commons to be published on 7 December 2022.

Watch the meeting 

Members present: Robin Walker (Chair); Caroline Ansell; Miriam Cates; Mrs Flick Drummond; Anna Firth; Nick Fletcher; Andrew Lewer and Ian Mearns.

Questions 223 - 311


I: Gillian Keegan MP, Secretary of State, Department for Education and Susan Acland-Hood, Permanent Secretary, Department for Education.

Written evidence from witnesses:

– [Add names of witnesses and hyperlink to submissions]

Examination of witnesses

Witnesses: Gillian Keegan and Susan Acland-Hood.

Q223       Chair: Welcome to this accountability hearing for the Secretary of State for Education. I am delighted to welcome Gillian Keegan as Secretary of State and Susan AclandHood as Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education.

Secretary of State, where does education policy currently sit within the Government's top priorities, and what are your top priorities as Secretary of State for Education?

Gillian Keegan: First of all, thank you, and it is great to be back. Many of you I know were on the Committee last time when I was here as Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills. Congratulations to you, Robin, and everyone who has been in place since then.

It is fair to say all of us would think that it is pretty high on the Government's agenda and on the Prime Minister's agenda: as he said, the closest thing to a silver bullet that we have is education. Everyone around the table would agree with that. The other part of where we always look as politicians is where the investment is going. It is clear from the Autumn Statement that there has been significant uplift, and we are very thankful to the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and the Treasury for making sure that education is well funded. It is a very high priority.

Q224       Chair: And your priorities?

Gillian Keegan: Clearly, this is a dream job for me. Most of you who know me know that I am very passionate about apprenticeships, so that is clearly one thing. There is barely a question that is raised that I cannot come up with apprenticeships being a good answer to. In general, levelling-up and what we have all talked about, which is the fact that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not, is not academic to me. That is my lived experience for my whole life. I truly believe it. I truly believe there is a lot of talent in this country that is not getting the opportunity it deserves. There are still a lot of childrennot as many as there were, we are improving all the timethat are not getting the best start in life through their early years, the best school opportunity and options they could have, or the best advice to get on in life, either through further education or further studies through to university. When I was in the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister role, we always focused on making sure that the other 50% had a really great option as well. We started that journey, but we have to continue that journey.

In terms of where we are, Claire Coutinho is going to be looking at early years and special education needs and children and family, and that is an area where we have done less reform. We still have a lot of the reform in front of us in that area, and we will be issuing our plans and responding to various consultations in the New Year, but that is something that I know you will have more questions on.

School standards: Nick Gibbs is back. Phonics: expect lots. He has added maths hubs and foreign languages, so real focus on standards and increasing those standards. You may have seen that we had a very stretching target for Key Stage 290% of kidsand that is to force us to continually look to improve the standards.

In terms of technical education, apprenticeships and skills, the Skills Bill is now an Act. It was the White Paper when I was there, and it was just going through the Lords when I was moved into Health. That is now there, and we have the investment and the money. It is to scale that, so that those opportunities are real. If you are sat there, as I was in Knowsley, and you are looking for a fabulous apprenticeship or a great course to go on, or later in life looking to upgrade your skills or get into a new opportunity, you can find the things that we are working on delivering.

Chair: That is good to hear. This Committee is taking an interest in some of those areas you mentioned, particularly some of the areas that Claire will be leading on. We will come back to some of those later in brief, but I want to bring in Caroline at this point on the issue of priorities.

Q225       Caroline Ansell: Thank you very much. You signposted my question there when you referenced children and families. The Children's Commissioner, who herself was an educator for 30 years and more, said there is only one thing as powerful or potentially more than a good education, and that was family. I wonder if you could, even at this early stage, outline some of the potential reforms and discussions that might be forthcoming.

Gillian Keegan: There is a lot in that. There is a lot of work. We will all be aware of the work that Dame Andrea Leadsom has done on the family hubs, which is very important to give that support to get the best start in life. I visited some of the early work there with perinatal mental health support for families in Knowsley, actually, where I am from. I visited that when I was a Health Minister. That is an important part to make sure that families are supported and that support is universal.

One of the things that we have got wrong in the past is we tried to focus things on targeted people who do not want to be targeted, quite frankly. Everybody needs a bit of help and different help at different times of their life, so it is to make sure that is a universal service. That is going to be a fantastic addition, just to help make sure that kids are developing well when they are born and when they are young.

Clearly, the thing that we have to look at is childcare. We know that childcare is very expensive for younger children. We have been looking with interest at a lot of the work that has been going on. I know Onward and others have published reports. Claire is going to be looking at childcare. We spend a lot of money on childcare, actually. We spent £20 billion in the last five years, so there is a lot of investment, DfE alone spends £3.5 billion a year, but of course, you always want to make sure that you are providing the right service for families.

Then it is making sure that we support families as much as we possibly can. A lot of the things that we have done are there to support families and make sure that you have great options for school. The good and outstanding school is really important. When your precious charge goes off aged four or five, you want to make sure that they are going to get a fantastic experience at school. It is quite a worrying time for parents and for kids as well. It is critical that most people get that option for good and outstanding schools.

Q226       Chair: Thank you. In terms of the portfolios within the Department, we have gone from a situation in which we used to have a Universities Minister at the Cabinet table, to one in which you had a dedicated Minister for Universities in the Department, to one in which we now have a Minister for Higher and Further Education. Does that reflect a change in the priorities or the importance of the universities sector to the Department?

Gillian Keegan: Definitely not. We are very proud of our university sector, our researchers, and four of our universities are in the top 10 in the world. I was very briefly in the Foreign Office. If you go around and speak to anybody, they will talk about our education system, which our universities are the pinnacle of, and how well-regarded and well-respected it is globally. It is a big part of our soft power. It is a big part of our economy. It is a big part of something we are all proud of. I have a university in my constituency. If you have a university in your constituency, we are proud of what they do every day to help people get on and be the best they can be in life and get the vital skills they need. So not at all, but we have one less Minister than when I was there. There was another Minister.

What we are really looking at are cohorts. For 16 and above, you have all of these different options. We want all of these different options to be fantastic and to work well together, work better together. One of the things we have introduced is the Institutes for Technology, of which there are 21. If you have not been to one of them, I would suggest you go to some of them, because they are leading in key and critical new skills areas. The collaboration between universities, FE colleges and business is where there is a lot more effort being made.

Q227       Chair: Do you believe there is more scope for that collaboration and possibly for institutional combinations between HE and FE?

Gillian Keegan: I think so. I am not hung up on the structures but working together to solve some of the business issues. I was at one recently, which was focused on advanced manufacturing. If you think about our journey—manufacturing as part of our culture and historywe lost a lot of our manufacturing because of labour arbitrage. We could not compete with cheaper labour in the far east. Actually, in advanced manufacturing there is hardly any labour. It is all robotics. That gives us huge opportunity, but we need to have the people with the skills to be able to programme equipment, to be able to maintain it and to be able to optimise it, etc, so working together with businesses to make sure that we create the skills that can support those real growth opportunities for our businesses. You will see that around the West Midlands which is becoming a real hub for that as well as digital, largely down to Andy Street's leadership as well. There is a lot of work going on, and collaborations between the interested parties is absolutely the way to go.

Q228       Chair: With our university sector, you have mentioned yourself the soft power, the economic impact and that side of things. That is of course supported by international students. I remember very well, because I was at the Department at the time, celebrating the achievement of the target for international students early. We have had some reporting recently that the Government may wish to curtail those numbers or in some way return to only hitting the target of 600,000 rather than necessarily exceeding it. The university sector would appear to be very keen to keep going up and attracting more talented students from around the world. Where does the DfE sit on this, and what conversations are you having within Government about international students?

Gillian Keegan: First of all, thank you for all the work you did, because I was really pleased to see that there was an international education strategy, that it had been thought about, it had been deliberately focused on, and it had a target in there which was for in 10 years' time, one of the targets that has been brought forward in terms of achievements. It is a huge economic contributor as well to the areas around a university but also to the country. I am very proud that we have an international education strategy. It is a very strategic thing to do, because international education is very important.

What we are doing now is making sure that we work with universities to focus on how we can expand and grow still, but maybe expand the breadth of countries that are benefiting from that opportunity. I guess you cannot believe everything you read in the papers. I do not know if everything was sourced, but we are proud to have that.

There is often a discussion about the numbers and whether student numbers should be in or out of the numbers. The reality is we started with them in, so that is why they are in. Clearly, when we are looking at the challenge of migration, which I am not underestimating, we do have huge issues. The small boats is something that concerns many of us and our constituents, but you really have to separate that from people who are coming here to do degrees, a lot of them doing STEM degrees as well.

Q229       Chair: I have had a lot of concerns raised with me over the years about uncontrolled migration, about the issue of small boats and so on. I have never had any concerns raised about PhD students or postgraduates.

Gillian Keegan: No, and a lot are masters and PhD students.

Q230       Ian Mearns: Some of the press speculation, shall we call it, has referred to some sort of differentiation in some people's thinking between Russell Group universities and the students they attract and other universities, inasmuch as that would then seem to imply in some people's minds that the product of other universities outside the Russell Group is somehow inferior and therefore not worthy of attracting international students to them. That would be hugely detrimental, certainly to universities in the north-east of England, who have a very good product and are producing good students with good quality degrees. I do hope you can put on the record, Secretary of State, that this is definitely not in the thinking of the DfE or other colleagues around the Cabinet table.

Gillian Keegan: I am very happy to put that on the record. However, what I will say is the assurance that we seek to have good quality degrees and education is continual. It is a very expensive decision for international students, even more expensive than for our own students, but it is a big investment going to university, and you need to make sure that you get the quality. That is for every student to make sure that we have very good quality courses and continually make sure that they are meeting the needs of business and employers.

Q231       Mrs Drummond: Going back to newspaper reports about medical colleges and that they are only taking on foreign students, is that the case, or do you have plans, because we have a shortage of doctors and medical students, to make sure that British students will be taken on by the new colleges?

Gillian Keegan: We are investing in medical schools. In fact, I opened a nurse and allied health building in my own university about four weeks ago. We are investing in more and more medical places. We know there is a challenge with medical places. There is some work, I believe, on considering whether we could do degree, master's degree, higher level apprenticeships also to facilitate more routes. There are about 70 today, including doctors as well. I do not know if we have anything specific on the numbers in terms of medical places. I know there is a cap on some of the numbers.

Susan Acland-Hood: There is an overall cap on the number of medical places we fund. It is true that there are some international students in medical places, but it is certainly not true that they are excessively dominant.

Q232       Mrs Drummond: These new medical colleges that are set up apparently had 100% foreign students.

Chair: Brunel in particular is the one at the moment, which is—

Mrs Drummond: Brunel, exactly. I wanted some confirmation from you that you are looking at that.

Gillian Keegan: Let me take that away and look specifically at that university. There should not be a school that has 100%. It sounds a bit excessive, but when you are starting up you have this issue of which students you attract first, and there is probably a financial difference as well, which we are all aware of.

Q233       Chair: Secretary of State, if I may on thatI have to declare a constituency interest, because my university is one of those which is affected by this—it is a DHSC process allocating new medical places which is the challenge here. Perhaps we could ask you to speak to your colleagues and former colleagues at the DHSC and urge them to ensure that there are places allocated to those medical schools which have been approved. There are three, Worcester, Brunel and Chester, where there are new medical schools which do not yet have any funded places. There was process of allocating places which was due to be run but was postponed as a result of Covid, which could be the solution to this problem. It is, I suspect, more of a Health problem than an Education one, from my understanding of the issue.

Gillian Keegan: There is a bit more on the placements as opposed to the university course as well, trying to make sure that they align. I remember that from Health. We are doing a lot of work by the way—as you would expect, I have not long come from Healthto make sure that we optimise the routes to make sure that we have the staff that we need, and we have a lot of apprenticeship routes, so we will be working very closely on that.

Q234       Nick Fletcher: In immigration with regards to students, it was reported that international students that are studying masters are bringing family members over. Can you confirm that? Can you discuss what you are going to do about that? If they were coming over for a PhD, people were a little bit more in agreeance with that, but when they were just studying a masters and they were bringing their family over, and with the issues that we have with immigration, it was causing concern with many constituents of mine.

Gillian Keegan: First of all, the vast majority of international students are probably undergraduates not postgraduates. The exception in terms of being able to bring a family member over is you have to be able to fund your family members as well, so there are conditions attached to it. As you say, it is only for masters and PhD students. It tends to be for people who come from particular parts of the world, more mature students as well, because obviously most young people do not have an awful lot of dependants, and they have to be immediate dependants.

Immigration is a Home Office lead. It is not a Department for Education lead. We will always work with the Home Office to make sure that we are getting the systems right, but if you look at international students and that 605,000, there is probably a very small number who have brought over dependants.

Q235       Nick Fletcher: Will you have a word with the Home Office? Will you discuss it with the Home Office, because it is an issue? Everybody who has come into this country at this moment, even if they fund themselves, like you have said, is still another strain on society and on the public purse, whether that is with GP appointments, whether that is with hospitals or whether that is with any other issue.

Susan Acland-Hood: They actually pay to use the NHS as well. The student has to demonstrate that they can support their family, and the family pay to use the NHS. Also we know that they go home at the end of the period of study. This is when we have to think really carefully about imbalance, because this is part of our international student visa offer and it is very similar to what our competitors around the world will offer. If we make changes to it, we need to accept that means our ability to attract the best students from around the world is going to be reduced.

The other thing that is worth thinking about is what the Secretary of State said about trying to make sure that as we look to attract more international students we are attracting them from a wider range of countries. I say this without a value judgment, but if you look at the places where students are most ready to come without the ability to bring dependants, it is China. The ability to bring dependants is also something that helps us to make sure we are able to attract the best international students from all around the world and that our institutions are not overdependent on single places.

Q236       Anna Firth: While we are on the theme of priorities and about grammar schools, I was very pleased to hear your comments about levelling-up opportunity around the country, Secretary of State. It is often said that grammar schools are one of the best engines of mobility ever created. Four of the best grammar schools in the country are in the new city of Southend. Three of those fall within Southend West, Westcliff High School for Girls, Westcliff High School for Boys and Southend High School for Boys. Are they safe in your hands?

Gillian Keegan: They are definitely safe in my hands. They do a fantastic job. I was expecting that question to come from Andrew who has a great interest in grammar schools as well. Clearly, they are a great addition to our overall offer, but the thing to remember is 93% of kids will never get to go to a grammar school. In Knowsley, there is not a grammar school within sight. There is not one in Chichester, my own constituency. There are some parts of the country where you are very well served. Southend West is one of those, and I know other areas of Kent and Buckinghamshire in particular tend to have quite a lot of grammar schools, but the vast majority do not get to go to grammar schools, which is why we need to focus on making sure that everybody has a fantastic comprehensive state school education. Of course, we have the academies as well, which is a new addition to the landscape. They are safe in our hands, but they are not the answer for the vast majority of children, because they are not there for the vast majority of children.

Q237       Chair: I will bring Andrew in shortly on this, but connected to that we have heard rumours, and fairly widespread rumours, that the Schools Bill is no longer likely to progress. Is that the case? If so, can you explain why?

Gillian Keegan: I can confirm that the Schools Bill will not progress in the third session. There have been a lot of things that we have had to focus on, and the need to provide economic stability and tackle the cost of living means that the parliamentary time has definitely been reprioritised on that. We all know that we had to do that because of the pandemic aftershocks but also the war in Ukraine, and we needed to support families. However, we do remain committed to the very many important objectives that underpinned the Bill, and we will be prioritising some aspects of the Bill as well to see what we can do.

A lot of the Schools White Paper is being implemented and did not require legislation in many cases, but we know that there has been interest, particularly in a couple of areas around legislating for children not in school and a register. I know that has been something the Committee has been pushing. Let us just say, we have heard your concerns and it is definitely a priority.

Chair: I am glad to hear that it is a priority. That is something that the Committee has been pushing for, long before my time as Chairman. Indeed, I gave similar assurances during my time as Schools Minister, so it is something that we would see as urgent. It would be welcome to understand what legislative vehicle might be able to deliver that.

Q238       Andrew Lewer: Given the invitation to elaborate on grammar schools, I will take it up. Your colleague, Baroness Barran in the Lords, said on Friday, "We have no plans to open new grammar schools." Your comment about there not being one in Knowsley or Chichester is quite pertinent, because under this announcement, in some contrast to the Prime Minister's campaign pledges when he was running for the leadership and the previous Prime Minister's intention, there will not ever be a grammar school in Knowsley or Chichester. When Baroness Barran says there are no plans, does that mean there are no plans in this Session or in this Parliament, or for as long as you will be Education Secretary?

Gillian Keegan: They may not be all the same time period either, but no plans usually is within a Session. The key thing is that for decades, 50, 60 years, anyone could have put a grammar school anywhere, and they did not put one in Knowsley. What we have done now is focused on what we are going to do to improve the quality of the schools in places like Knowsley, where they have not been great; they were certainly not great when I was there and they are not fantastic now.

This matters, because a lot of my cousins' kids go to these schools. It is not just my own personal journey. People are experiencing that all time, so that has been a real focus on what can we do best to get more children going to good and outstanding schools. The main part of the strategy has been the academy system, whether that is the multi-academies or the single academies that have been a bigger part of trying to improve the outcomes. They have made a massive difference in providing that autonomy, investment in leadership, investment in teaching and enabling schools to work together in a much more collaborative way.

That is the structure that we think is going to make the biggest difference to the most amount of children the quickest, and it has. We have been working on this since 2010, when the Conservatives came into Government in a coalition, and then when we took over it was 68% of children were going to a good or outstanding school. It is now 88%. That is the quickest and biggest impact that we can have, so that is where the strategy is focused. However, we know the law facilitates the expansion of existing grammar schools, which is what we have today, which I know you would want to go further, but that is our focus in terms of making sure we make the biggest difference to the most people as quickly as possible.

Q239       Andrew Lewer: You talk about various different kinds of schools and how that helps with the mix, and yet this particular kind of school and academic selection, rather than some of the other variety that is available, still seems to be not available. People do not want it to be available in the Department. Given that diversity should provide strength, to coin a phrase, why be so prescriptive about this, and why not allow this to be part of this mix that you are rightly saying is adding so much to the benefits? Is there not an inherent conflict in all Education Ministers of my acquaintance over the years, who always say how great grammar schools are and then say they do not want any more at the same time?

Gillian Keegan: I honestly do not have any strong views on grammar schools, but I do have a strong view on the 93% of children that will never get to go to one. Even if you had more—that might be 92% or 91%—it is still a huge percentage of children that we need to make sure have a fantastic education. What is the best way of doing that? We think the academisation and the multiacademy trust is a fantastic model. It is not perfect, by the way, so we need to work on getting that right. There is only so much you can do. There is only so much you can legislate on. There is only so much you can think, in terms of leading the strategy, this is going to make the biggest difference.

We talked about the engine of social mobility. A fact which I would challenge on grammar schools—I think they are fantastic and I am sure everybody wants to go to the ones in Southendis, the percentage of disadvantaged children in grammar schools does remain stubbornly low. If we use the 2022-23 data, it stood at only 7.9% compared with 26.6% in all mainstream schools.

As an engine for social mobility, I do not know what they were like years ago, but I know that for many of our colleagues it was their life chance. They absolutely love the fact that they were able to go to a grammar school, but I would imagine that the figures were different then. They have become much smaller as a contribution to that social mobility to help disadvantaged kids. That is what we are always focused on. How do you make sure those disadvantaged kids get a really good or outstanding option in life? That has to be the target and the focus. It is just a question of how you prioritise, which is what you asked me.

Q240       Ian Mearns: There are a couple of things. I am interested in the stats, Secretary of State. You said 93% of youngsters will never get to go to a grammar school, but 7% of our youngsters are in independent schools. Is that 93% of the rest, in that case?

Gillian Keegan: Yes.

Q241       Ian Mearns: Secondly, you gave a stat there on the number of youngsters being educated in good or outstanding schools. Recent experience from Ofsted, who are starting to re-inspect outstanding schools, has shown that quite a number of outstanding schools are no longer outstanding. Can you update that stat once Ofsted have completed their work in terms of re-inspecting schools which have not been inspected for quite some time because they had that outstanding tag? Some of them have had that outstanding tag for too long without fulfilling the requirements to still be outstanding.

Gillian Keegan: You are absolutely right. There are a couple of things that have happened. The first thing is we are re-inspecting all schools, and a massive thank you to Ofsted because they are taking on quite a lot of extra work to do this by 2025 to make sure that we have an up-to-date situation regarding our schools. The 88% is up to date. It is good or outstanding. We did update the Ofsted framework, so it is tougher to be outstanding as well. Again, we are continually upping the standards here. We are trying to get that continuous improvement.

Q242       Ian Mearns: Indeed. For a number of the schools who have been inspected under the new framework, it is probably the second or third framework since they were last inspected. That in itself is not healthy for those schools, given the outstanding tag prevents them from being inspected or re-inspected. That is not good from the school's perspective by comparison to their peer groups, as it were.

Gillian Keegan: We all know being tested, like I am being tested now, makes you up your game to make sure that you are constantly reviewing and doing the very best that you can. It is a part of the system. That is why we are delighted that we have this target by 2025 to re-inspect all schools, but 88% is the uptodate figure. Most of the outstanding, if they did not keep outstanding, are good.

Ian Mearns: It seems if we are going to have an inspectorate and an inspection framework, it should apply to everyone. That is the way it seems to me.

Gillian Keegan: Yes, I agree.

Q243       Chair: Secretary of State, can I return you to the Schools Bill? You just made the comment about disadvantaged students and the fact that they should have the best opportunities wherever they are in the country. One aspect of the Schools Bill, which is of particular interest to me I have to say, having banged on about it for decades, is the national funding formula and the delivery of direct funding to schools.

Currently, you have the power to allocate funding to local authorities, and you have the power to take some of that funding away and give it to academies within those local authorities, but you do not have the power to direct funding to schools according to the population that they serve. Should you, and will you?

Gillian Keegan: 2023-24 will be our first year of transition to the direct schools national funding formula. The endpoint is a system which ensures that fairness and consistency is there in the funding. We are also targeting a lot more of that funding towards deprived pupils than ever before. Right now, from what I understand, we can go quite a long way to achieving our aims to push this through nonlegislative steps. We talked a little bit about the priority, and the registration safeguarding issue is a priority in terms of that too, but that is because we think we can go a long way not only in mainstream funding but also to improve the funding for special educational needs and high needs.

Q244       Chair: We will come back to that higher needs point, because I know there is a lot of interest in it and we are all seeing a lot of casework on that front. In terms of the mainstream funding for schools, I appreciate you can go a long way, but the local authorities who have been amongst the lowest funded would say that, because of the minimum funding guarantees and the smoothing and the protections that are in place, it will take potentially decades to get to a fair formula.

Now we have a map-led system, you have multi-academy trusts who are running different schools in different parts of the country, where they might have the same pupil characteristics but they can be facing a difference of up to £1,000 per pupil, more in some cases when you take London into account, in the amount of funding that they are receiving. Surely, it makes sense to be moving faster towards a rational system where the characteristics of the pupils that the schools serve are the basis of their funding, rather than the decisions a local authority might have taken in the 1980s.

Gillian Keegan: Yes, and clearly you have a huge amount of expertise in this area; more than I have, I would say. I remember when we started this journey, there was a lot of discussion and a lot of concern about which aspects of the funding formula best suited different constituencies with different makeup and different pupils. The rurality was discussed a lot. There is always a debate and there is always a discussion.

For me, there are two key things. The first is we have more funding, and that is fantastic. We are funding our education system much more than we ever have in our history. Many of us can see that when we go round to the schools. They really are night and day from when I was at school. The other thing is that we are targeting a greater proportion on those pupils that are more deprived. They are the key things we need to get right. We know that deprivation is spread around the country in lots of different places as well, so that is the focus.

I do accept that there are many things you can do to be improving systems, to be improving funding and how it is allocated, to be improving results, and to be improving teachers. Our teachers are fantastic, but of course we are continually investing in their professional development as well, because they want to be improving. You have to prioritise based on what we can do, what time we have, and legislation. That is one that we think we can go quite a way along the journey without legislation.

Q245       Chair: One last thing on the Schools Bill. With the ambition to get more schools into the academy system, there are some specific needs that the Church of England and the Catholic Church have expressed around some of the barriers to converting schools in their space. Can you address those without legislation, or will we need some form of legislation to address those?

Gillian Keegan: That is also a priority area because, as you say, we need to remove barriers that are there for schools that want to go into multi-academy trusts. At the moment that is a barrier, so we do need to deliver that. We are committed to legislate on protections for faith schools so that they can join trusts. Obviously, that is not something that I can completely confirm is going to happen, but it is a priority along with the registration. They are definite priorities because at the moment it is difficult for faith schools to join trusts and there are some complications around land and other issues as well. We do need to focus on that.

Q246       Mrs Drummond: There are examples of schools off-rolling pupils for various reasons. The parents say,Oh, do not worry, I will educate you at home,” and there is no evidence as to whether they are being educated or not. You will have heard my question to the Prime Minister last week, that nine in 10 local authorities do not know who these children are. There are 115,000 estimated, but nobody knows how many there are because there is no register. It is really important so can I pin you down to a time scale on this register?

Gillian Keegan: I agree, it is really important and ongoing. As you point out in your real-life example, we are continuing to support local authorities with their non-statutory registers of children who are not in school, and we have published new guidance to schools on supporting children with regular attendance. We do know that there has been an impact on attendance for some children post-pandemic and we are focused every day on those who have not returned to school.

We definitely remain committed to legislating for children who are not on the school register, and we will continue to work until we make sure that they are all receiving a safe and suitable education. I cannot commit to dates or times because there is a process that has to be gone through and I do not have full control of it, but this is as much of a commitment and a priority for me as it is for the Committee.

Q247       Miriam Cates: I have a few questions about political impartiality in schools. Traditionally, we have thought that teachers should not tell children which party to vote for or which party’s policies are correct, but earlier this year, the Department produced guidance on impartiality in schools because it is far more complicated now. The guidance says, “It is important to note that many ongoing ethical debates and topics will constitute a political issue. This can be the case, even when the main political parties and other parties and groups agree on a view, but there is not a wider consensus in public opinion. Instead, there is continued debate where different legitimate views are expressed.” In other words, teachers and schools should not be teaching as fact political ideas on which there is an ongoing debate in the population. Have you had any feedback on this guidance; is it being adhered to in schools; what have you heard back from the sector?

Gillian Keegan: I have not heard back, so I will be interested to. I do not know, Susan, whether you have had any feedback? In my six weeks on the job so far, I have not had any feedback on that issue.

Susan Acland-Hood: We had some general early feedback from our stakeholder groups that it was helpful, but not much beyond that.

Q248       Miriam Cates: Okay, thank you. There is a recent report, published by Professor Eric Kaufmann of Policy Exchange, based on some YouGov polling, that found that 75% of children had been exposed to critical social justice theories in schools. By that, I mean critical race theory; the belief that the organising principle of society is racism, and gender theory, the idea that there are many genders and everyone has a gender identity. Of those three quarters of British children who had encountered those theories in schools, 68% said they have been taught those ideas as fact without alternative views being on offer or have been told that the alternative views were not respectful. Do you think that the teaching of those theories, which are highly contested and actually do not have widespread support amongst the mainstream population, as fact is politically partisan?

Gillian Keegan: Yes, I guess I do think that. Obviously, the guidance is there to try to navigate through some of these areas. I know you have been campaigning on transparency and I agree with you. People should be able to see what we are teaching children in schools. Parents should be able to see it and debate it. There are many issues that we will have differences of opinion about, but the ability to be transparent and have legitimate debate is fundamental in all of our educational institutions. That is where we really need to focus and may need to do more.

We are going to update guidance and widely consult on the particular debates of biological sex versus gender as it is a complex area to navigate. I am sure we will receive a lot of data and views and inputs from people who have been looking at this and what is happening in schools. I know there are a number of concerned parents, in fact I had a surgery in my own constituency last week with someone saying, “This is happening in my school and it is having a big impact on my family,” particularly her daughter, and they did not know about it.

Q249       Miriam Cates: I agree that transparency is really important, that it is part of the accountability between schools and parents on these difficult issues, but it is wider than that. There is a reason that indoctrination in schools is illegal, under sections 406 and 407 of The Education Act, because in a democratic society, it is very important that schools which represent the State do not impose political views on children. There is, of course, a difference between a teacher telling a student something and that student encountering that particular view in the outside world. Teachers are in loco parentis, and students have to believe what they are told by teachers because they are programmed to do so, otherwise what would be the point in going to school? What students are told by teachers has a particular weight and these findings show that, unfortunately, a huge proportion of our children are being taught, as fact, theories that the wider population do not adhere to.

What is the Department's plan to deal with that; what are the consequences for schools for pushing forward? Some of these are pretty radical, extreme views being presented as fact. We need to think about the consequence further down the line for the rest of the population if children are being taught these theories that the rest of the population do not accept. What is the plan to make schools accountable on this?

Gillian Keegan: First of all, the vast majority of teachers would take that responsibility you describe extremely carefully and absolutely to their heart. I know you were a teacher yourself. People have this responsibility to not only debate difficult issues, but to actually encourage the debate. We know that some of our institutions have lost their way in this. This is why we have the free speech Bill going through at the moment. We know that there are areas where we need to ensure that we have this balance right, and I do not think we are there yet. There is still part of that journey that we need to make, but also these are not all settled views. There are people who have very different views in some of these areas and we need to go through that very carefully because the wider population’s views are not always either wide or settled.

I will let Susan come in on this as she has much more experience, but in terms of checking what is happening in schools and issues such as critical race theory, I know it has been a concern. We obviously work with the Equalities Minister, whose area is to really focus on much of this, but it is important that we have these debates very openly.

Q250       Miriam Cates: This is exactly my point. These issues are not settled, they are contested. They are completely legitimate discussions for adults to have, but where a teacher or a school puts forward or promotes one political idea to the exclusion of all others, is that not indoctrination?

Gillian Keegan: Is it indoctrination? This is why our guidance is there, to say that this is what you should not do, and this is why we have the laws in place.

Q251       Miriam Cates: How will schools be forced to adhere to that?

Gillian Keegan: Ofsted provides the regulation, which we are always updating. Ofsted look at these issues and what is being taught in terms of the curriculum and making sure that it is reasonable and balanced.

Susan Acland-Hood: Yes, that is certainly something Ofsted take very seriously, particularly, anything that has a safeguarding aspect. Ofsted always carry out parental surveys and so anything that parents raise will be followed up on. The only thing I would add is that we are asking teachers to navigate some really difficult waters. As the Secretary of State said, teachers are working extremely hard to do their best and to do that well. Our stance should be one of supporting them and helping them to do that. It is important that we are standing behind them, helping to navigate some of those conversations and, as I say, the guidance was quite well received.

Q252       Caroline Ansell: I really recognise what you are saying around how sensitive and complex this situation is. In a related point, I wanted to share the experience of a number of teachers who have come to me. They are very concerned by what they are being asked to teach. They do not teach it with authority or conviction and in fact they are reporting that teachers are actively calling in sick to avoid having to deliver curriculum materials that they think are actually quite damaging. I really welcome the commitment to new transparency around the curriculum materials for parents, but my concern is, is it for parents to police, monitor or judge what is right, healthy, balanced and appropriate in this way? Should this not be considered at a higher level?

I have concerns around the curriculum and teachers’ ability to express their concerns. I fear that freedom of speech for teachers is not there, not least for pupils. I wanted to share one additional conversation I had with a grandfather when canvassing; to his utter dismay his five-year-old grandson had come home and said, “Today we were learning if we were in the wrong body.” He told me that he would not dare raise this as a concern because he would be deemed to be transphobic. I understand that there is new guidance coming to help schools with this, but all the while schools are still trying to navigate this terrain. What would be your best advice at this point for teachers and parents who are very concerned at what they fear is being taught in schools?

Gillian Keegan: The point you raise is not specific to schools; this is a debate that is broader than that on both sides of the topic. We are all frightened to go on Twitter, in terms of having any views, because we have seen very, very publicly and very high-profile people become targeted because of their views on either side of that debate. The most important thing is that we retain the ability to have a sensible debate. That is really, really important because, as you say, we are putting together guidance in this area. It will be widely consulted on because the reality is there are different and opposing views and it is necessary to navigate through this complex area showing compassion, while considering what is age appropriate. If I am honest, I have not seen it myself when I go into schools, so I am unsure how prevalent it is, but we have all heard stories from constituents, and parents should raise their concerns, as Susan said. I know that teachers take their responsibilities very seriously. Most teachers are parents as well and they really do take care to navigate this.

Q253       Caroline Ansell: Are we concerned that teachers actually have that freedom of speech in their school settings? There have been a number of cases where teachers have not, in fact, been supported by their schools.

Gillian Keegan: I do not know if the Department has any experience of that, but I personally have not heard it. I must say, I have not found any problem with freedom of speech from any of the teachers that I mix with as a constituency MP. I have family members who are teachers as well and I have not seen that, but I would not want to see it, so if that is happening it is a difficult subject.

Q254       Nick Fletcher: I find it extremely concerning, hearing the types of stories that Caroline has just brought in there. There is an old saying, “Give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the adult.” If we are dropping seeds of doubt into young people, that is extremely dangerous. The debates we are talking about should be between adults; it should not be reflected in school. Books written by activists are finding their way into schools and they should not be. Parents do not realise that they have the ability to ask what is being taught.

That transparency piece needs to educate parents that they have not only a right to ask what is being taught but that they have a right to kick back against it also. They need to know where they can actually go if they do not get help or results from the school. Finally, what part can your role take in stopping controversial books making their way into schools or agreeing which books are actually appropriate?

Gillian Keegan: There is absolutely no doubt that it is very important that parents should know what their children being taught in school and particularly more so when the topic is sensitive. There was no transgender guidance when we went to school, as there was no need for it, but we have to deal with the world as it is, which is more complex now. There are clear requirements on schools providing parents with information about the curriculum and we believe that most schools are engaging very actively and proactively with parents on this. If that is not always the case, then clearly we need to continue to highlight those areas where we have concerns. That is part of the process between parents, teachers and Ofsted.

There is one thing I want to just make clear, where we need to continually improve. I believe there was some question regarding whether schools could show materials to parents or whether there was a copyright issue. To put it on the record, schools can show resources to parents in person without infringing an external provider's copyright in the resource. We have also said that if somebody is asking you to restrict the right to show that resource, you should very seriously question that transparency and avoid entering into private contracts with commercial providers that seek their right to restrict. Any parent should be able to see what their child has been taught. There may be different opinions on what is age appropriate, which we are going to have to step our way through using a big dose of both common sense and transparency and listening to both parents and teachers.

Chair: The other thing I note is that when we had His Majesty’s Chief Inspector in her accountability hearing the other day, she did make the point that the words age appropriate bear an enormous amount of weight in this discussion. When the Department considers its guidance, it would be helpful to have some more indications as to what that means. That is something perhaps to take away.

Q255       Miriam Cates: I am sorry to press you on this, but it sounds as though the Department thinks these are isolated issues. If you add the percentages together from the polling and the statistics that this research is based on, around half of British children are reporting being taught these contested, divisive political theories, as fact, with no alternative viewpoint presented or being told that the alternative views are not respectable. These are very destructive ideas that are really attacking liberalism and the whole point of not being allowed to indoctrinate children in schools, which is one of the foundations of our democracy. This is a much more widespread problem than the Department thinks. Yes, there are wide debates to be had in society, of course, but what is it appropriate to tell a five-year-old? We need to be clear that this new guidance on the transgender issue is based on safeguarding and evidence and not an attempt to balance contested views amongst children who are not old enough to entertain those ideas.

Gillian Keegan: 100%. As I said, there was no need for transgender guidance when we were at school. There is now and that is why we are doing it. It is clearly addressing a need. I have not seen the report, but I will look at it. I will also look at the polling and the evidence behind the report, because there are sides of this debate that have skin in the game, so I will look at the level of concern that is being raised. Most of us are parents and we are in schools all of the time. We are very concerned about this issue, but personally not every school I go into has outrage over materials that are being shown. People have raised issues but there is potentially a different view on that. It was also quite a broad question, from what you read out, it had many cultural things such as critical race and others—

Miriam Cates: Grouping, critical social justice theory, yes.

Gillian Keegan: Okay, yes, I would even have to look at the definition.

Q256       Anna Firth: Thank you for confirming that this new guidance will have a safeguarding first approach. Can we have your best estimate as to when this guidance will be published? Secondly, and perhaps one to take away, have you considered the potential consequences for English schools of Scotland's proposed Gender Recognition Act going through the Scottish Parliament?

Gillian Keegan: Obviously, it is a devolved issue and they have a different approach. There are many differences in curriculum.

Q257       Anna Firth: If we have families going backwards and forwards, if we have people relocating and we have a different system in Scotland, it is something which will actually have to be considered across Departments.

Gillian Keegan: That is probably broader than just this issue in terms of people. The education systems are different, as is the university system. There are many different systems, in terms of the guidance. I do not know if there is an absolute date, but we will be holding a full public consultation on the draft guidance prior to its publication in 2023.

Susan Acland-Hood: Yes, we expect to bring out the draft for consultation early in 2023, but we think this is one of those things where it is really important that we consult broadly on the draft before we fix on the final guidance.

Q258       Anna Firth: That is very helpful, but just because we know that this is such an important issue, what is the latest that you expect this to be published? We do need this guidance; it is clearly critical.

Susan Acland-Hood: The draft guidance for the consultation? I am going to look at the Secretary of State because we have been doing lots of work on this in the Department. I am acutely conscious that we have a new set of Ministers and that this is a really important issue that everybody wants to look at very carefully. Left to myself, I would preserve a little bit of space for my Ministers to make sure they have time to really look at it and think about it.

Gillian Keegan: That is fair, because I have not seen any of the information yet and Minister Gibb is obviously very keen to put his slide rule over this as well. Maybe we can write to the Committee when we have travelled further down this road. Obviously, we have been in place for six weeks now, but we completely understand the urgency and sensitivity of the issue as well as the concern from teachers and parents. We know it is urgent and I suspect it will also be a continual debate.

Q259       Caroline Ansell: The guidance will presumably be around how schools best support those pupils experiencing gender disorder. Does it also reflect on the curriculum and that body of knowledge and how that might be delivered in this sphere through RSE? Or is that a separate and distinct study?

Gillian Keegan: To be honest, as I said, I have not looked at any of it. Minister Gibb probably has missed an intervening period.

I do not know if you have any answer to that. In terms of describing what is in the guidance, which is probably not the right thing to do right now, we clearly need to ensure that it does what it says on the tin. We should not lose sight in this debate of the fact that it is a sensitive issue and there are children of various ages, but teenagers as well, who are struggling with their identity, sexuality and gender.

Caroline Ansell: Regarding pastoral care and the curriculum.

Gillian Keegan: I am sure that the whole thing will be looked at and considered in terms of the guidance.

Chair: Back to Miriam and specifically for our Committee that has been doing a lot of work over the years, looking at both the catch-up and the disadvantage gap.

Q260       Miriam Cates: Obviously, before Covid-19, we were making brilliant progress on narrowing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children. Now, sadly, that has slipped quite considerably, which is absolutely tragic but probably predictable given lockdown closing schools. What support will there be going forward for the most disadvantaged pupils to improve attainment? I refer specifically to this year's key stage 2 statistics, where only 43% of disadvantaged pupils met the expected standards.

Gillian Keegan: Yes, this has clearly been one of the huge, tragic impacts of the pandemic that we have lost most of the ground that we had made. The things that we were doing and focusing on had started to have the right outcomes. We have that very ambitious target of 90% at key stage 2, which was going to be tough but even more so now that the starting point has gone backwards. It is absolutely critical, so what are we doing about it? The first thing is the national tutoring programme: just over 2.1 million courses have started since it was launched in November and that really is the flagship. We ensure that schools have a flexible approach to that to make sure that students can catch up and they can do so in a way that also allows them to regain their confidence. In some cases, students missed out on their ability to socialise, and this has had a big impact on children. We also have over £1 billion available to support tutoring which is going directly to schools. There are academic mentors, tuition partners and school-led tutoring. From the Ofsted review, it seems that tutoring is considered the best approach so it is something I expect will be more widely utilised.

Susan Acland-Hood: Just drawing out beyond the national tutoring programme, our recovery premium was sent out based on the number of pupil premium students in the schools. It was aimed specifically at the most disadvantaged pupils in the school and a large proportion of our catch-up funding has been invested in the thing that we know works best in schools, which is investment in teacher quality. That is that kind of programme of training with the golden thread that runs all the way through the teacher's career.

We also know that one of the big challenges is making sure we can get the best teachers into schools in the areas where they are most needed, which is why we announced, as part of our education investment areas programme, that there will be additional bursaries for shortage subjects and those who teach in those areas. We are investing in teacher quality generally, which we know does support all students but disproportionately those disadvantaged pupils because they are more dependent on the teacher in the classroom for the education they receive.

We then also have a set of programmes which will be really familiar to this Committee, but I make no apology for that because we were making good progress in narrowing this gap before the pandemic. What we need to do now to continue to close it is to double-down on those programmes, for example phonics work. We saw some early promising signs that schools that were supported by English hubs achieved better results than those equivalent schools that were not, and likewise, the work of maths hubs on mathematics mastery. That really consistent focused working with teachers and building their professionalism to teach the techniques that we know work best in supporting the attainment of the most disadvantaged pupils.

Q261       Miriam Cates: Yes, that sounds sensible, although Ofsted's recently published review said that the catch-up tutoring cannot really work in some schools for various reasons to do with extending the school day. I trust that the Department is looking into that, and I suppose it makes sense to pursue all these ideas that were working before. However, with absence as it is, I am just trying to remember the figures but the local authority in Sheffield stated that the persistent absence before the pandemic was 14%. As of this half term we are already at 20% or 27%. If a high proportion of students, particularly the disadvantaged, are absent, it does not matter what is done in schools or how good the practice is; it will not have the effect. Is part of the plan to tackle that persistent absence?

Gillian Keegan: Yeah, it is absolutely fundamental that if the child is not there, they are not going to be catching up. In fact, we could make the assumption that they are probably getting further behind. The £1 billion recovery premium that Susan mentioned provides the schools with a lot of leeway in terms of how they use the fund. Many of them are using that for attendance programmes, attendance mentors and monitors, and trying to work with parents on rebuilding the child’s confidence. I recently went to a school and there were a particular group of young children who just did not want to go to school and were very anxious about it. The school had made a classroom look like a home and were having the children come in, have breakfast and do softer activities to get the children to be more confident before integrating them into the classroom. This is just one example of how the teachers are working hard to solve the issues, as they know the families they are working with.

A lot of this money is being used for additional pastoral support to ensure that they work with families and disadvantaged children.  One of the great things that we have seen is the great service that Minister Gibb has given the children of this nation in his dogmatic approach to introducing standards. Okay, we may have taken a step back, but phonics is having a massive upward effect on reading, Every child will be learning and the English and maths hubs will expand, really making sure that the child understands the fundamentals before they move on. This will reduce that whole idea of anxiety and of feeling left behind, and give the children the building blocks so that they have the fundamentals to be able to read, explore and apply maths. They are things that we have been introducing that I think will continue to have a huge positive impact on all children, but as you say, it is more prevalent with disadvantaged children. Of course, once you can read, you are able to discover knowledge which is really, really important.

I believe that great teaching is also fundamental. The NPQs, the National Professional Qualifications which are relatively new, and also the early career framework includes mentoring for the first two years. It can be quite tough on new teachers, particularly if you have not spent all that long in the classroom, and maybe you have been impacted by Covid-19 yourself in terms of your placements, and mentoring alongside their continuous development ensures that they will be very successful. I was recently speaking to a group of teachers and they were saying how freeing it was to actually be able to continually learn and update their knowledge and to know that support is on hand within the hubs etc. There are a lot of things which I really believe are going to fundamentally improve the educational prospects of our young people, we are seeing that in the PISA tables. But once that flushes through the next generation, we really will see some fantastic results.

Chair: Thank you, Secretary. It is great to hear your enthusiasm, but we are going to need shorter answers if we are going to cover the ground that we need to cover. I want to bring in Flick on the subject of attendance and also confidence.

Q262       Mrs Drummond: I was also going to talk about that 90%. Yesterday, some of us did an example of SATs. I am not sure about the Chair, but I am not sure many of us got over 90% despite the fact that we can all read, write and do mathematics perfectly well. Is this 90% really achievable, and is it not going to be at the exclusion of other subjects?

Gillian Keegan: First of all, I think it is definitely disappointing that you did not get 90%.

Chair: To be fair, the target is for 90% of people to meet the expected standard, not for people to achieve 90% results. For the record, I did get 90% in the spelling and grammar test.

Gillian Keegan: I guess there will be a multidisciplinary team, where someone will be good at everything. The way that they teach English, in particular, has completely changed. When we go into classrooms, I am sure that we must all have that moment where you look and think, “I am not sure.” I did not know until the other day that vertices are corners. It is just the way that things are taught and the way in which you describe things. The only reason that I can keep up with a lot of the English techniques is that I learnt to speak Spanish as a second language, because it is not the way that we are taught to speak English. It is suitable for the children who are studying now and they are being taught to pass. I think it is good to have stretching targets, but it is an extremely stretching target, particularly now that, as Miriam was saying, we have gone backwards.

Q263       Mrs Drummond: There is a whole other discussion about that, so I will not go into it now. On attendance, when Amanda Spielman of Ofsted was giving evidence recently, she said that well over 100,000 are out of school every day and that 50,000 of these are unauthorised. In 2021, the former Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi, launched the attendance alliance group that seems to have been discontinued. What assessment have you made of the benefits of such a group, and have you considered re-establishing it?

Gillian Keegan: I do not think it has been discontinued. I am attending one early next year, I think. Yes.

Mrs Drummond: That answers that one then.

Q264       Chair: Hang on. You are attending one next year. It was meeting monthly, I think, during Nadhim's time.

Gillian Keegan: Yes.

Q265       Chair: Has that continued since July last year?

Gillian Keegan: I do not know if it has been every month.

Susan Acland-Hood: It has certainly continued to meet and continued to work. Yes.

Q266       Chair: That is useful to know because we got the impression from Amanda that it had not met since July. She was one of the regular attenders when it was meeting regularly. Has the membership changed in that respect?

Gillian Keegan: I have not been to my first one. I am going in January, so it is not that far. I believe it has been ongoing. It was national leaders from Education, Health, Social Care and other services, really focused on absence. The Children's Commissioner is a key member, and she has made a pledge to undertake a review of local authorities to really work to understand where the missing children are and why they may be falling through the gaps. Obviously, that work is instrumental in shaping our plans as well.

We are absolutely focused on children missing from education and, personally, I am very comfortable in pledging that we will continue to take action and further action until we get children back in school. It is a bit more complex sometimes because of mental health or confidence, so we do have to rebuild more than just getting somebody