Improving Education Standards

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:53 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Jeremy Lefroy Jeremy Lefroy Conservative, Stafford 12:53 pm, 29th November 2018

I think this is the first time, and it will no doubt be the last, that I have been called to speak first in a debate after the Front Benchers. It is a great honour to do so. I thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their speeches. Both made important points. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who is a great example of the importance of sticking at a job through many years. I just wish that politics would allow highly capable people to do that in other posts, rather than being changed after six months just when they begin to get going. I pay tribute to him for all that he has done in his role over most of the last eight and a half years.

I also pay tribute to the teachers, teaching assistants, support staff and all who work in the schools, further education colleges and other educational institutions, including training providers, in my constituency of Stafford. They do a wonderful job day in, day out. That is often not recognised, and although I will not single out any particular schools in my constituency—some are outstanding and some are good—I want to say to all who work in all of them that they have my thanks and the support of my constituents.

I also want to thank governors, who do a very difficult job. I have been a governor of two different schools, one overseas and one in this country. I know how much work my colleagues on the governing body at the time put in week in, week out. I also join the shadow Minister in paying tribute to the Church of England, Catholic and other faith schools around the country, which provide a large percentage of the education in our country, particularly at primary but also at secondary level. Long may that continue.

I am not an expert in education in the slightest. However, I try to listen to educators, employers and others for whom education is so important. I want to start with a quotation—not quite word for word—from a major employer in the city of Birmingham who I happened to hear speaking at a meeting we held there a couple of months ago, which I was chairing. This was a major employer, employing tens of thousands of people, who said that the quality of the young people coming for interview in Birmingham, where the headquarters had recently been moved, was much higher in terms of educational standards than it had been a number of years before. They were work-ready, they wanted to do the jobs, and he was proud to be able to employ them.

That was nothing to do with those individuals; it was due to the background of improving standards in the education they had received at school and university. I do not want to say that that is due to any particular Government. Clearly there has been more than one Government in that period—a Labour, a coalition and a Conservative Government. However, I pay tribute to all those who have enabled those young people to get into a position where they can apply for and get into jobs in a well respected company and be appreciated for that by the chief executive. Let us begin on that positive note, and I am sure that that experience is replicated throughout the country.

Let me turn to the finances of schooling. The Library says that my constituency of Stafford has seen a fall in cash terms over the four years to 2017 of just under £300 per pupil. Clearly we have seen a rise for 2018-19, and I welcome the new funding formula, which I will talk about a little, but that shows the pressure that schools have been under. We were more than £400 per pupil below both the regional west midlands average and the English average for schools in 2017-18. I fully accept that there has to be a difference in funding in certain areas that have higher needs and costs, particularly in London and other conurbations. Rachael Maskell talked about the gap in her constituency, as others have for theirs, including my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston. However, a more than £400 per pupil difference between Stafford and the average—not the highest, but the average—is too much. It is not acceptable that we have such a major discrepancy, which has been going on for decades, between the lowest-funded and not the highest-funded but the average across England.

That obviously comes at a time when costs are going up, and those costs are common to all schools, whether it is the cost of pensions, the cost of employer national insurance contributions or other costs. We have to remember that the vast majority of costs for schools and education institutions are payroll-related costs, which tend to be similar across the country. I credit the Government for recognising that and for their aim to have fairer funding for schools across the country, which I welcome, but it has to come at a time when overall resources are rising, because we do not want to be put in a position where Peter is robbed to pay Paul; we want to be in a position where the gap narrows on a rising tide.