Nadhim Zahawi answers MPs’ questions to the Department for Education.
Take-up is a key measure of success for universal infant free school meals, and it has been strong since the introduction of the policy. According to the latest figures, 1.5 million infant pupils—excluding those eligible for benefit-based free school meals—took a lunch on census day. That represents a take-up rate of 86.2%.
Some 15 years ago, Hull led the way by pioneering the policy of free healthy school meals to fight poverty and childhood obesity and to improve attainment in the classroom. When the Liberal Democrats came to power in Hull, they scrapped that scheme in 2007, but this was followed by the Labour Government’s pilots and the announcement from the coalition on free school meals for the earliest years. However, given the continuing link between poor nutrition and childhood obesity, is it not disappointing that just-managing families in Hull are seeing a doubling of prices for school meals, all because the austerity funding squeeze on school budgets and councils has not ended in deprived areas?
I am grateful for that question. Giving free school meals to infants encourages children to start on the right path to nutritious meals. Those who are eligible will go on to claim free school meals, and it is worth noting that the new eligibility criteria and the protections introduced last April mean that we expect more pupils to be entitled to free school meals by 2022, by contrast to the scaremongering that took place in this place and outside when the policy was introduced.
Does the Minister now accept that it was a mistake for his party’s last election manifesto to propose abolishing free school meals? Will he promise that there will be no such proposal ahead of the snap election that looks like it is about to happen and to which his Back Benchers are looking forward so much? Indeed, will he commit to matching Labour’s manifesto commitment to extend universal free school meals to all primary school pupils?
I am grateful for that question. It is good to see the shadow Front-Bench team intact after the weekend speculation that they were about to split with the leadership. It is worth reminding the House that we have extended eligibility for free school meals three times while in government, and we continue to be committed to that policy.
We plan to spend £3.5 billion this year to deliver our funded early-years entitlements. We recognise the need to keep our evidence base on costs up to date, and continue to monitor the provider market closely through a range of regular and one-off research projects.
According to the Sutton Trust, 1,000 children’s centres have closed over the past decade. Now, West Twyford children’s centre, which is a small centre in an isolated area, cannot continue under the current funding arrangements. That will leave the 295 families it helped last year, 123 of which are among the 30% most deprived families in the country, in the lurch. Will the Minister come with me, along with headteacher Rachel Martin, to see the great work that the centre does—it is not very far from here—and can we thrash out a way forward from this unsatisfactory situation? The area has had local government cuts of 64%. We need to spare these vital centres the axe.
I will happily meet the hon. Lady, and even join her, if my diary permits, to have a look at that work. I have seen many local authorities throughout the country deliver outreach programmes to the most disadvantaged families, who actually do not necessarily tend to come into bricks-and-mortar buildings. There are models that deliver a better outcome for those families than just investing in bricks and mortar.
Two of my childcare providers have closed, citing the requirement to pay business rates as the final nail for them. In Scotland and Wales, private childcare providers are not charged business rates. Will the Minister look to see what can be done, because it surely cannot be right that we tax space which is beautiful for young people to grow and be nurtured in?
To my knowledge, two local authorities have done the same thing in England, and I urge other local authorities to look into what they can do to help childcare providers to cope with business rates.
Since 2010, the number of state nurseries in deficit has soared. One in five is now in the red and dozens have had to close. Transitional funding will soon run out and they face serious uncertainty about their future. Last week, I visited Harewood nursery, a much-loved maintained nursery in Pontefract. I was deeply troubled when the headteacher told me that without a cash injection the nursery faces imminent closure. Parents are running a GoFundMe page to keep the doors open. Will the Minister give us an assurance today that maintained nurseries will get funding, at least to tide them over until the spending review, before the end of the current financial year?
The hon. Lady will know that we had a very good debate on that matter last Thursday, when 13 hon. and right hon. Members spoke from the Back Benches about the provision of maintained nurseries. We are considering how best to handle the transitional arrangements for a number of areas, including for maintained nurseries. My message again is that it would be premature of local authorities to make decisions on maintained nurseries before the spending review, but we are considering transitional arrangements.
Off-rolling of pupils is illegal. Edward Timpson’s review is in progress and will report very soon. Exclusion from school must not mean exclusion from education. Our priority in the Department is to make sure that AP—alternative provision—works for those children who cannot go to mainstream school.
My right hon. Friend has read the report, and there is cross-Government work through the serious violence taskforce. As I said, exclusion from school must not mean exclusion from education. It is vital that pupils who enter alternative provision following an exclusion have a high-quality education, which is why we are reforming AP.
The excellent school food plan recommended in 2013 that Ofsted inspectors should consider the way a school promotes healthy lifestyles. We have had two childhood obesity reports that talk about Ofsted evaluating how schools support children to keep themselves healthy, yet there is no mention of that in the Ofsted inspection framework. Will the Minister commit today to implementing an Ofsted-led healthy rating scheme as soon as possible?
We are working with Public Health England to update school food standards. This will focus on reducing sugar consumption and include guidance to caterers and schools. We are testing delivery models as we continue to explore the most effective way to deliver the healthy schools rating scheme, building on the successful resources that are already available.