I echo what has already been said about the fantastic maiden speech of my new hon. Friend Gareth Snell. I went with him to visit a maintained nursery school in Stoke, and I know how committed he is to education and skills in the area. That brings me to the main thrust of my own speech.
After nearly seven years, the cumulative effect of Government policy on education and skills is now being felt by pupils, parents and teachers, and has given rise to a number of serious issues, each of which should demand the full attention of Ministers. School budgets are falling for the first time in 20 years. There is a teacher shortage crisis. There has been a huge rise in pupil numbers, requiring about 400,000 new school places. We are seeing the biggest changes in GCSEs and the curriculum for a generation, of which many people are unaware. Primary assessment is in absolute chaos: the pass rate in last year’s standard assessment tests fell from more than 80% to an appalling 53%. We have seen the introduction of more free childcare with insufficient funding, and serious failings in capacity and oversight in the schools system. Many of the Government’s previous “pet projects” have failed and closed. All that has come on top of what the Secretary of State described today as the biggest revolution for a decade in technical education.
Any one of those issues should command the undivided attention of Ministers, but they want to impose two huge further changes on the schools system: a new funding formula which seems to have left all sides unhappy, and the reintroduction of grammar schools without a shred of evidence, which has shone a light on the woeful record of existing grammar schools in supporting children from poorer backgrounds. The Budget had nothing to say about social mobility, closing the productivity gap, or creating the high-wage, high-skills economy that we need. Perhaps the Government would have done better to spend more of their time sorting out the last set of experiments that they said would create “more choice”. What has happened to them? Let us take a look.
Since 2010, when the Government introduced their previous gimmicks—university technical colleges, studio schools and free schools—there have been huge problems and a massive waste of resources. More than 1 in 10 UTCs has closed, and many more are now on the brink. While there are a few excellent UTCs, even Michael Gove—who had introduced them—admitted that the experiment had failed, saying:
“the evidence has accumulated and the verdict is clear”.
Three in 10 studio schools have closed or are due to close, as Schools Week analysis has found, and many more are on the brink of closure. Only one has reached the 300-pupil mark that was set. The future is therefore looking bleak for those experimental institutions, yet the Government are hellbent on creating more. One in five free schools are in places where they are not needed. With the starving of capital funds to existing schools, and the failure to meet the places crisis by continuing to throw good money after bad, this Budget does nothing to deal with the real issues facing our schools.
Even though we are awaiting the outcome of the Government’s consultation, we heard this week that the Government are hellbent on going ahead with their grammar schools programme, which they are now calling “selective free schools.” I note that the Secretary of State is so ashamed of that policy that she did not even mention it in her speech today. I reiterate that there are very few Conservative Members in the Chamber to defend that policy.