Budget Resolutions - Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:18 pm on 14th March 2017.

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Photo of Margaret Greenwood Margaret Greenwood Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) 6:18 pm, 14th March 2017

Education has a key role to play in breaking cycles of poverty, but we know, too, that poverty has a profound impact on a child’s ability to make the most of any educational opportunity available. Yet this Budget did nothing to tackle child poverty, which stands at about 4 million in this country—that is a shameful figure, and it is set to rise.

According to the Child Poverty Action Group, by the age of three, poorer children are estimated to be on average nine months behind children from wealthier backgrounds. Department for Education statistics show that by the end of primary school, pupils receiving free school meals are almost three terms behind children from more affluent families. By 14, the gap grows to over five terms, and by 16, children receiving free school meals achieve on average 1.7 grades lower at GCSE.

We know, too, that the early years are crucial for child development. Maintained nursery schools do an important job for children in their early years and many are struggling financially, yet the Chancellor chose to find £320 million for 140 new free schools. I strongly question his sense of priorities. Some 65% of maintained nursery schools are in the most deprived areas in the UK, and 97% of them are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted. No other part of the education sector can match that, so their value cannot be in doubt.

Ganneys Meadow nursery school in my constituency has received outstanding judgments in its last three Ofsted reports, and it provides a vital service to families in the local community. Around 20% of the children there have special educational needs or a disability, including autism, epilepsy or mobility problems. The families of a number of the children are on low incomes, and some of the children might be quite vulnerable. The school gives those children the very best start in life, yet despite that service, based on the specialist expertise of highly qualified, trained teaching staff, it is funded at the same rate as all childcare providers. Local authorities can top up that funding, but we all know that they have had their budgets severely cut by central Government.

The Government have announced extra funding for nursery schools but, in practice, schools such as Ganneys Meadow will see their overall income rise by only a very small amount, and they will remain financially squeezed. If the Government are really serious about improving the life chances of the most disadvantaged children in our society, they should back the maintained nursery schools and ensure that they get the funding that they need to secure their future. At secondary school level, funding per pupil in my constituency is expected to fall by 10% between 2013 and 2019, which will mean a loss of £309 per pupil in cash terms between 2015 and 2019. That will inevitably be to the detriment of pupils’ education and staff morale, and it is wholly unacceptable.

The arts in education are particularly at risk at the moment. Uptake of creative subjects at secondary level fell by 14% overall between 2010 and 2015, and the Government have so far failed to respond to the consultation on the future of the English baccalaureate, which included a consideration of the place of arts subjects in the core curriculum. A survey of teachers by The Guardian in January found that 9% of respondents reported that either art, music or drama was no longer offered at their school. About 20% said that one or more of those subjects had been given reduced timetable space. Yet studies here and in the United States have shown that students from low-income families who have the opportunity to engage in the arts at school are significantly more likely to go on to get a degree and are also more employable overall, so these cuts to school funding really are damaging the prospects of our young people.

There are also real issues around adult literacy and numeracy. The latest Government studies, published in 2011, found that nearly 15% of 16 to 65-year-olds were functionally illiterate and that 23% of the people surveyed lacked basic numeracy skills. This is a real crisis, and the Government should tackle it as a matter of urgency, for the sake of not only the individuals involved but their families. When we educate the mother or the father, we educate the child. We need real investment in adult education and lifelong learning. The Chancellor announced £40 million in funding for 2018-19 to test different approaches to helping people to retrain and upskill throughout their working lives, but there have been cuts of more than £1 billion in the sector since 2010. I also question the need for pilots. As a former teacher in adult education schools and someone who has close knowledge of the work of the British Education Research Association, I can assure the Government that there is plenty of expertise out there that they could tap into to put together a really robust programme of adult education and lifelong learning.

I also urge the Government to think beyond retraining and upskilling. Those are important in providing vital training opportunities to help people to move on in their employment, but it is important to provide education for education’s sake. On TV, we see the huge popularity of programmes such as “The Great British Bake Off”, “The Great Pottery Throw Down” and “The Big Painting Challenge”. It is clear that there is a real interest in discovering arts and skills areas that might have nothing to do with employability, but everything to do with creativity and learning. I join my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy in his call for the reintroduction of night schools. They are inexpensive places where people can learn and socialise, and they can help people to grow in confidence and make friends. They also provide an effective way of tackling social isolation. They can be quite transforming for individuals and communities, and I believe that they have a particularly important offer in our ageing society.

In the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech, when setting out the Government’s negotiation objectives for exiting the European Union, she said that the Government would aim

“to build a stronger economy and a fairer society” in which

“every child has the knowledge and the skills they need to thrive”.

If the Government are sincere in that, they should make it a priority to fund early years education. They should also be ambitious in their plans for lifelong learning and make a real priority of tackling child poverty so that children are healthy and able to make the most of the educational opportunities on offer.