Department for Education

Part of Estimates Day – in the House of Commons at 2:53 pm on 3rd July 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee 2:53 pm, 3rd July 2018

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are doing a separate inquiry into children with special educational needs and disabilities, which I hope will reflect the issues he has raised.

We began our inquiry on 19 June, with a scene-setting session featuring the National Foundation for Educational Research, the Education Policy Institute and Institute for Fiscal Studies. In our future sessions, we will be hearing directly from teachers, governors and parents about the way forward, and seeking to strengthen the Department’s hand as it enters negotiations with the Treasury in the spending review.

One important matter is how public money actually reaches schools. Part of the original motivation of a national formula was to bypass the various byzantine means by which local authorities disbursed funds to schools. This is sensible, but there is a problem concerning the role of multi-academy trusts in top-slicing and allocating money received from the DFE, a matter on which my Committee colleague, Lucy Powell, has tabled a number of parliamentary questions.

According to the Education Policy Institute, there is little measurable difference between the performance of schools in MATs and those in local authorities. There is good and bad to be found in both, and we must not let the reforms of the past eight years or so be lost through a failure to attack underperformance in academy trusts, as has occurred in a number of high-profile cases recently, including WCAT—the Wakefield City Academies Trust—and Bright Tribe. Having said that, I recognise that there are many good and outstanding academy schools and the difference they have made to the lives of thousands of pupils.

I wish to add that the £1.3 billion top-up was an Elastoplast solution, as it were, for a longer-term problem that could become serious if not seen to. Members on both sides of the House will share my commitment to tackling social injustices—that is the aim of our Select Committee—and one of the most profound challenges we face on that front is the so-called attainment gap between the educational outcomes of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those of their better-off peers. I appreciate that the Minister for School Standards and the Education Secretary have made progress on this, but it has been at quite a slow rate.

The Government and their predecessors have shown their commitment to tackling educational disadvantage through using the pupil premium to enable schools to provide additional support and opportunities to the children who deserve and need it most, but however well-intentioned and generously resourced the pupil premium is, it is not without its flaws. The first flaw is that schools are increasingly dipping into their pupil premium money to shore up their overall budget. This is most unlikely to be a measure of first resort, as it involves simultaneously further disadvantaging already disadvantaged pupils. There is also the ethical problem of publishing information about how pupil premium money is spent while knowingly doing something else with it.

The second flaw is that many children eligible for the pupil premium fail to receive it because they are not registered to receive free school meals. I understand that this figure could be as high as 200,000. This can happen because parents are unaware or unwilling to make a claim, perhaps in some areas through a sense of social stigma.