I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
Improving education chances for all young people in my constituency is one of my top priorities, as it will be for many across the House but, sadly, for too many the reality does not match the Government’s rhetoric. So I want to record the reality shared with me by the 67 head teachers from primary, secondary and special schools across the borough of Bury in their letter to The Bury Times in April this year, in which they said:
“Ministers repeatedly claim that education funding is protected and seem to be in denial about the realities of school funding and its impact on children. They talk about there being more money in education than ever before, when there are half a million more children in schools than in 2010. Tough decisions will have to be taken. Governors and Headteachers can no longer guarantee that such cuts will not impact on our children.”
Their letter goes on to warn of the consequences of this funding shortfall—larger class sizes, fewer teachers and senior staff, decrepit school buildings, loss of teaching assistants, fewer GCSE options on offer, difficulty in recruiting teachers and so on. One Bury head told me:
“It is quite simple—there is less money in schools. Government rhetoric says that schools’
funding has been maintained but does not mention the additional costs (NI payments, paying for services which were previously free, pay increases, pension increases etc.)”
Most alarmingly, this impacts on children with special educational needs and disability. I am pleased to have secured, with colleagues from the Education Committee in the Chamber today, the SEND inquiry, which has now started. More than half of the Bury heads responding to my survey told me that they had been forced to cut special educational needs provision. Three quarters say that the number of staff they have dedicated to SEN support has either stayed the same or fallen, despite increasing numbers of pupils needing access to it, while 52% expect to have to cut it further in the next two years. One primary head said, “I do not have the necessary funding to support some of our most vulnerable children in terms of SEND.” Schools need support if we are to create and sustain the dynamic mainstream education system that I would advocate.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the number of excluded pupils in alternative provision with SEND is on the rise. Some 77% of excluded pupils in 2016-17 had special educational needs and disabilities, with heads marking the reason for their exclusion from an extensive list of options as “other”. “Other” now represents nearly 20%, despite being a category intended for rare use on which the Department holds no data. In his recent letter to the Education Committee, the Minister for School Standards provided no data for 2017-18 SEND exclusions, which will have been submitted already but are not disclosed. Perhaps he might announce those figures in his closing remarks.
We need more scrutiny of schools’ use of “other” as a reason for excluding, as well as a more sympathetic system that supports and encourages schools to include and does not penalise them through the Ofsted framework. Pressures on our local authorities compound the problem. Some 250 children are being educated out of borough in Bury, at a cost of £6.5 million. I urge the Government to introduce a pupil premium-style funding allocation for children with SEND. Let us call it “SEND spend” and fund it properly. The high needs block funding must rise in line with costs, and the rise in SEND numbers needs to be better reflected explicitly in the system.
In Bury, I have challenged the local authority to commit to no out-of-borough care in five years. Let us not unsettle children who wish to remain, but enable a return to mainstream for children for whom a reasonable adjustment can be made. Alternative provision has a profound role to play—one that I celebrate and defend—but it must not become an alternative to a patient, sympathetic and inclusive mainstream system. This Government have presided over a highly pressurised, poorly funded system that leads schools to off-roll and to exclude, not include. Where now for Every Child Matters? We have a plan for some children, not all, and our most vulnerable are being left behind.
If we delve a little deeper into the Government’s auto-response that 1.9 million more children are in good or outstanding schools since 2010, we see that it is misleading. As I said to the Minister at last month’s Education Committee session, and as the Education Policy Institute confirmed in its report yesterday, a large part of that increase is due to a rise in the birth rate. About a quarter of the 1.9 million pupils—nearly 600,000—are the result of an increase in the population of pupils.