Improving Education Standards

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:15 pm on 29th November 2018.

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Photo of Vicky Foxcroft Vicky Foxcroft Opposition Whip (Commons) 1:15 pm, 29th November 2018

I agreed with what Jeremy Lefroy said about exclusions, which I will touch on more later in my speech. Some Members may know that when I speak in the Chamber, I tend to speak about youth violence and I will be doing that in this debate because education is very much at the heart of the solutions to this. There is no doubt that some of the funding cuts have proven difficult in terms of tackling youth violence. In particular, it has put pressures on those working in education. I want to focus some of my points on that.

Improving education standards is a good thing, but it is not just about improving grades or about increasing the number of young people who go to university—although, obviously, that is a good thing. It has to be about ensuring that our schools develop our young people and present them with all the opportunities and skills for the future that they so desperately need and thus reducing the likelihood that they will ever be involved in violence. Schools are at the forefront of tackling youth violence. We do lots of school intervention programmes that say, “Don’t carry a knife as you’re more likely to be stabbed”, but we know that that message is not quite working. It is not quite getting through to them, because they are still carrying knives and getting involved in youth violence. We need to make sure we give them far more positive messages and training that says, “You are the future doctors, nurses, politicians. You can be what you want to be.” We need to have that, and the fear of losing it in the future, as the reason why they are too terrified to carry a knife.

The Minister may be aware of the recent research by The BMJ showing that children under 16 are at the highest risk of being stabbed on their way home from school. That backs up what the police, youth workers and teachers have been saying to me for years. I thoroughly believe that as policy makers we have a responsibility to intervene where we can. For example, could we consider keeping our kids in school until 6 pm, staggering their leaving hours or making sure we have youth workers in schools during those times, given that we have such convincing evidence before us? I asked tons of questions on this in the past, but the Departments do not actually hold this information. Perhaps the Government should look at that seriously in order to make sure we really can analyse it.

Other measures could help keep young people safe while they are at school. Over the summer, the Youth Violence Commission published its interim report. I urge the Minister to read it if she has not had a chance to do so yet. It takes only about 30 minutes and it is written in a brief way. If she is keen to read a lot more, she can look on the website, which also has a ton of information.

One of our recommendations was to attach a dedicated police officer to every school in the country. The idea was not to police our kids in school; it was very much about building trust between police and young people. We know that there has been a breakdown in the relationship between young people and the police, but if they see a police officer in school—they might even play football with the police officer—that relationship will start to build. Hopefully, they will feel able to speak to police officers if in future they have worries or troubles. When we went to schools that had dedicated police officers who did have that relationship with young people, many of those young people wanted to go on and become police officers in future, and quite often they were from backgrounds that we would not traditionally think would mean they would want to join the police.

The Youth Violence Commission recommends a long-term aspiration to have zero exclusions from mainstream education. We cannot ignore the link between school exclusion and social exclusion: once children are permanently excluded, it is very difficult for them to move back to mainstream education. Once in a pupil referral unit, a child has a very low chance of achieving five good GCSEs. PRUs have often been called pipelines to prison, which is hardly surprising when more than half the current prison population were excluded while at school. Worryingly, exclusions are on the rise, having increased by at least 40% in the past three years. When we know that something is not working, why are we still doing it? Why do we not invest the money from the PRUs and put that into school early-intervention programmes? We should speak to primary school head- teachers about who they see as the vulnerable children who could perhaps do with that wrap-around love, care and support, be it from nurses or peer role models. Why are we not investing the money at that point to provide support for our young people?

Education standards are part of the problem. The Government’s narrow focus on improving grades has led to schools quietly off-rolling students in attempts to improve their overall results. As part of their work to improve education standards, I hope that the Government consider our rising exclusions problem. In fact, is it not time that the Government entirely reviewed the merits of implementing a zero-exclusions policy across the board?

When the commission was carrying out our research, we consulted young people across the UK, and the same issues with the curriculum were raised with us consistently. Young people told us they wished that basic life skills—from how to write a CV to how to budget and how they might apply for a mortgage—were taught in school. Indeed, when we teach some of these life skills, we can also teach basic maths and literacy and other parts of the curriculum.

Many employers look for social media skills in new recruits, so that they can promote their business or reach out to new audiences, so why not start teaching social media at school? Not only could these lessons help young people to become more employable, but social media is often pointed to as the reason for violence flaring up between young people, so lessons could also focus on keeping young people safe online in a way that is relevant to the platforms they use. When I met a number of young people, some children in that conversation did not know how to hide their location—ghosting on Snapchat. One child taught another child, who had been followed and beaten up because their location had been known, how to hide it. With that knowledge, they could hide their location, which was incredibly valuable.

We need an overhaul of how careers advice is delivered in schools, ensuring that diverse role models and relevant work placements are on offer for young people. The serious shortage of diverse role models involved in careers programmes must be addressed. Young students of colour and working-class students need to see people like them in a range of different job roles. They need to know these options are available to them, too. Perhaps we could consider diversity in our history and literature syllabus. History lessons can sometimes feel like most of the people worth learning about were white, rich or male. Is it not time that the curriculum reflected the true diversity of our history?

We need more emphasis on high-quality sex and relationship classes. Primary school students should be taught what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, to build resilience from a young age. A diverse curriculum is so important. The Government have left cash-strapped schools with no option but to cut creative subjects from the curriculum. Art, drama and music should not be seen as nice but unnecessary. These subjects are equally important to a well-rounded education.

I think of my own background: I did not get any A to Cs when I was at school, for a multitude of reasons that I will not go into. But I then studied at college, where I did a BTEC in performing arts—some would say that is a natural thing for someone who becomes a politician, but hey-ho—and went on to do drama and business at university. My arts education did not just teach me about the creative subjects; I was taught about history, problem solving and team work, and it got me excited about learning and education.

I could go on. There is so much that I could say about how I think schools could play a greater role in tackling youth violence. But for schools to start truly playing a greater role, there needs to be much more dedicated funding. There needs to be funding for the arts and funding for school nurses and mental health support. There needs to be funding for school police officers and funding for special educational needs. The Government have claimed that austerity is over, but we are seeing no evidence of this on the ground. It will take years to reverse the impacts of the Government austerity agenda.

If we are to try to start to do something and truly look at how we can reduce violence, we must work with and listen to teachers, young people and parents, and all the different agencies that come into contact with young people. In short, we must seek to deliver a public health approach, diagnose the problem, and treat the disease. We need joined-up working among everyone who comes into contact with young people. I welcome the announcement today of a debate on Thursday 13 December on the public health approach to tackling youth violence. I hope that the Minister and her team will come to that debate and at least listen to the contributions, if not report back on it.