It is a pleasure to follow Neil O’Brien. I enjoyed so much of his speech, especially the passionate and kind tribute he paid to his principal. I think that everyone in the House found that extremely moving. He was clearly an inspirational man, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. Sadly, I do not know if we are going to continue to agree as I make the rest of my speech—but we started well.
Back in 2011, when I saw the school system that the coalition Government were creating, I remember standing at a rally and asking the question, “In this brave new world of the educational system that the Government are creating, what happens to the children no school wants?” The combination of a high-stakes accountability system and reduced school funding has created a perverse incentive for schools to off-roll and discourage certain children from attending mainstream schools. Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities are in despair. I am quite sure that every hon. Member here has had parents in their constituency surgery giving them the same story. Some parents are forced into spending thousands of pounds trying to get the resources promised them in their education, health and care plans.
As evidenced by the recent Barnardo’s report, our excluded, or off-rolled, children are vulnerable to becoming involved in criminal activity, or to being exploited or groomed. This is the true educational legacy of the coalition Government. They wasted billions on ideologically driven pet academy projects, a school curriculum that does not meet the needs of all our children, an accountability system that has destroyed teaching careers and has no way of recognising or valuing inclusive schools, and a school system that fails too many of our most vulnerable children.
Although I am happy to stand here and talk about improving school standards, I will focus on the forgotten children and evaluate what standard of schooling they are getting. For Members who are not aware of this, let me quote the Ofsted definition of off-rolling:
“The practice of removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal, permanent exclusion or by encouraging a parent to remove their child from the school roll, when the removal is primarily in the interests of the school rather than in the best interests of the pupil.”
I have been reading reports about this. Some of the suggested reasons for the rise in off-rolling include unintended incentives through school performance measures such as Progress 8 to remove lower-performing pupils from a school’s score and financial pressures on schools incentivising the removal of some children from the school roll. As I know from having been a teacher, it requires more resource to teach and help to develop children who are not performing as well as others than it does to teach a child who is very quick and understands things very easily.
Our Education Committee report—a cross-party report—said in its recommendations:
“An unfortunate and unintended consequence of the Government’s strong focus on school standards has led to school environments and practices that have resulted in disadvantaged children being disproportionately excluded, which includes a curriculum with a lack of focus on developing pupils’
social and economic capital. There appears to be a lack of moral accountability on the part of many schools and no incentive to, or deterrent to not, retain pupils who could be classed as difficult or challenging.”
That is, let us be honest, a diplomatic way of saying that off-rolling has been caused by the coalition Government’s changes to education since 2010.
We are talking about improving school standards, so let us look at what standard of education these children get—the ones who are kicked out of schools and not wanted. What happens to them? Research by Education Datalab published in January 2017 stated that
“outcomes for all groups of pupils who leave the roll of a mainstream school are poor, with only around 1% of children who leave to state alternative provision or a special school, and 29% of those who leave to a university technical college (UTC) or studio school, achieving five good GCSEs…there exists a previously unidentified group of nearly 20,000 children who leave the rolls of mainstream secondary schools to a range of other destinations for whom outcomes are also very poor, with only 6% recorded as achieving five good GCSEs”.
Who are the children being off-rolled? Ofsted says—it is not Labour saying this:
“Children with special educational needs, children eligible for free school meals, children looked after, and some minority ethnic groups are all more likely to leave their school.”
These children—our neediest children—are being failed by the system that this Government introduced, but there are signs of a fight-back by the profession.
I pay credit to the Association of School and College Leaders, which has recently established the Ethical Leadership Commission as the beginning of a process to articulate the ethical values that should underpin the UK’s education leaders. I call on the Government to do everything they can to support this and to look again at how the accountability measures can be changed to reward inclusive schools and heads who are genuinely trying to do the right thing.
We have looked at off-rolled children, so now let us look at improving school standards for children with special educational needs and disabilities. What happens to them? The Education Committee, on which I serve, is currently doing an enquiry into SEND, and we have heard powerful evidence from our witnesses. This is what one parent told us:
“I quickly understood the bigger picture, which was that I was dealing with a dysfunctional system of rationing in which the central criterion was which parents could push the hardest. Because I am a reasonably well-educated and well-resourced person who can read nine pages of text and spew out an approximation of them in two minutes…I could just about play the system successfully.”
Good for him, and he got the resources that his son needs, but what about all the children with special educational needs and disabilities whose parents do not know how to fight the system? What happens to them? How much support do they get? They are failed, excluded or encouraged to leave—that is what happens to them.
We cannot have a debate about improving school standards without also talking about funding, because funding matters. Only this week, the Headteachers Roundtable came to give evidence to the Education Committee. One of them, Laura McInerney, said, “Schools cannot afford to be inclusive.” She argued that restricted funding means that schools cannot afford crucial pastoral support for their children, and this is one of the main drivers behind exclusions. I do not think that schools have suddenly become crueller or teachers have suddenly become more unkind, but I know as a teacher that if I have 30 children in my class, I have problem behaviour with one or two of them and I have no resource in the rest of the school to support me with them, of course I am not going to want those children in my classroom.
We should be saying to schools, “Here are the resources to provide the pastoral support. Here are the resources to help those children deal with anger through anger management to enable them to stay in a mainstream setting.” These are the people who have gone, because when the funding cuts bite, schools cannot take away the teacher in front of the children in the classroom, so what do they do? I know that this happens in every constituency around the country—although I accept, looking at Luke Graham, that I do not know as much about Scotland. Pastoral support and teaching assistants go—that is what happens.
Katie Moore, the principal of Fullbrook School in the Chancellor’s constituency, recently gave an interview, because the Chancellor had visited her school and she wanted to talk about the impact of the cuts. She said:
“He saw on his visit to Fullbrook that we are desperate for enough money to support the basics”— let alone the children with SEND—
“of our students’
curriculum and the fundamentals of a good education, not just what he described as ‘little extras’. We need an increase to ongoing core funding that addresses the cost of teachers and support staff. We need to close the funding gap left by the 8% real-terms cuts over the last five years that schools in his constituency and around the country are unable to meet.”
It is impossible to discuss improving school standards without addressing the basic need for increased funding of our schools. I want to pay tribute to the brave headteachers who have taken part in the “Worth Less?” campaign for more funding for their pupils. I was involved in the demonstrations back in 2011 with other teachers against what was happening to my profession, so I know that it is unprecedented for headteachers to march on Downing Street. Two thousand of them came, and they did not come waving banners and placards or blowing whistles, although part of me wishes they did. They came to simply ask the Government, “Give us enough money for our schools.”