Budget Resolutions - Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:01 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Photo of Vernon Coaker Vernon Coaker Labour, Gedling 6:01 pm, 14th March 2017

At the heart of all the great Budgets and all the great policy statements is a vision backed by policy. The theme of today’s Budget debate is education. We heard the Secretary of State speak at great length about one of the main problems that has beset every education system in our country for decades: the link between social background and educational attainment. It is one thing to talk about it, but another to address it with policies that will work. For most of us, seeing the Government return to the failed policies of the past to try to address that is a great mistake.

The idea that the issue of social background and educational attainment can be solved by the return of grammar schools—they might have benefited a few, but did so at the vast expense of the majority of young people in an area—is totally and utterly unacceptable. Indeed, the Government have had problems with their own Back Benchers in putting forward that policy. I say to the Government that, yes, we all agree with tackling the link between educational attainment and social background, but not by returning to selective education—essentially to the 11-plus.

It is clear that Education Ministers went to the Treasury —I see on the Government Front Bench the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—and said that the National Audit Office was predicting a £3 billion or 8% real-terms cut in the Department’s budget by 2020. That is not defensible. Conservative Members will not have on their leaflets all the cuts that will be made to the schools in their constituencies; they will say, “Don’t worry, I will write to the Minister about this”, as though it somehow happens without the Government’s decision. The Department for Education has failed in its attempt to get the Treasury to stump up more money to pay for our schools. As a consequence, there will be a reduction in funding for virtually every school in the country, and large numbers of teachers will be made redundant or not employed in future. That is the reality of the Government’s policy on education.

My own Gedling constituency will see cuts of £5.6 million in real terms by 2020—the equivalent of 139 teachers. In Nottinghamshire, it amounts to nearly £40 million-worth of cuts. Local Conservative candidates at elections somehow pretend that it has nothing to do with them and object when we point out that it is their own Government who are doing it.

We face a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, too. At the heart of any policy whose aim is to raise attainment in some of our most difficult schools are good teaching and good head teachers: they are absolutely fundamental. Over the last few years, until fairly recently, every policy has recognised the need for such provision and has tried to ensure that it happens. However, teacher recruitment and retention are now under threat. Some schools are unable to recruit staff to teach certain specialist subjects, and some are even reflecting on whether they have enough staff to enable them to deliver a full curriculum over a full number of school days.

Let me say something to the Minister about T-levels. Every Government for decades have called for parity of esteem between academic and vocational education. The question that the present Government need to answer is this: how will the T-level policy initiative differ from all the other policy initiatives that have gone before? There has been talk about quality work experience and parity of esteem, but there is a problem that the Government have not addressed and we all need to address. It is a cultural problem: vocational education is not seen as having parity with academic education. When the Government decide what constitutes a good school, they do not say, “This is a good school because of the number of people it gets into high-quality vocational education post-16.” They judge that school on the basis of academic results. If we are judging our schools purely on the basis of academic achievement, is it any wonder that vocational education is sometimes regarded as second rate when it should not be?

I believe that there should be a national crusade. We need to make clear that there is a cultural problem with vocational education, and that we must change attitudes to it if we are ever to deliver the high quality that we need. There are skills shortages in various industries throughout the country—in Scotland, in Northern Ireland, in Wales and in England. The Government must explain how what they are proposing will differ from many of the sound and well-meaning policy objectives that we have seen before.