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Department for Education

Part of Supplementary Estimate 2018-19 – in the House of Commons at 3:07 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee 3:07 pm, 26th February 2019

The inquiry covers schools and colleges, so that issue will form part of it. I note the hon. Gentleman’s point and will ensure that we address it in some way or another in our Committee.

We should welcome the introduction of a national formula as the latest step in almost 20 years of reform in education funding. There are serious problems with the way that schools are expected to budget, not least being asked to do so over three years without the information to make reliable forecasts more than a year ahead. I hope the House will forgive me if I take the opportunity to give my strongest support to the plight of further education. I know that the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills is passionate in her support and is lobbying the Treasury for more FE funding.

FE has for too long been the poor relation between secondary and higher education. By 2020, we will be spending the same amount in real terms to educate and train 16 to 18-year-olds as we were in 1990. I was shocked to discover that that is not an accident of history, but the result of a conscious policy choice of almost a decade ago. FE is a great example of why a national funding formula in and of itself is not a panacea. Without enough money to go around, it does not matter.

The time has come for a completely different approach to how we think of schools and colleges in this country. Rather than the Department for Education being one of many Departments scrapping it out every few years for the meagre rewards of the political cycle, Ministers need to take a leaf from the book of the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England and make a bold bid for a 10-year long-term plan that starts to close the gap between inputs—broadly, in this context, the money—and outcomes at both an individual level, in the form of emerging from school a well-rounded person with prospects, and the wider economic level of having young people ready and able to fulfil the productivity part of the picture. We do not fully recognise the potential value of getting our education system right, and the DFE should make as much as it can of that in its negotiations with the Treasury. As a country, we have recognised the long-term necessity of funding the national health service, but without, it seems, the prior necessity of getting school and college funding right as a vital public service.

What would that mean in practice? For a start, we have to move beyond the rhetoric of school cuts versus more money than ever going into schools. That was the starting point of our inquiry and will be an important starting point for our report this year. The truth is that both characterisations are only very partial accounts and keep us talking about inputs rather than outcomes. The relationship between those inputs and outcomes is not simple and causal, as Mr Schleicher told the Committee this morning, but that is emphatically not the same as saying that schools can magically deliver world-beating results at the same time as moving from savings in their non-staff budgets to savings in their staff budgets. When we learn that students in Poland perform at the same level at age 15 as those in the United States, but with per student expenditure that is around 40% lower than in the United States, we need to consider whether simply asking for more money without a plan will get us where we want to be.

We need to take a long, hard look at some flagship policies and be open to questioning whether they are delivering against our stated policy objectives, especially when they engage social justice. Disadvantaged pupils perform a lot worse at school. Just 33% of pupils on free school meals get five good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared with 61% of their better-off peers. The Committee has already expressed its concern that the Government’s policy of funded childcare for three and four-year-olds is entrenching disadvantage and preventing the closure of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers from better-off backgrounds. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend Nadhim Zahawi, is passionately supportive of our maintained nurseries and is working incredibly hard to persuade the Treasury to guarantee the transition funding that maintained nurseries desperately need.

The consequences of not making the most of the time for which a child is at school last a lifetime, and the pieces are picked up by many other Departments across Government. If schools are increasingly being looked at to prevent some of these problems from occurring, it seems only right that schools receive the resources necessary to do so. I hope that Ministers will use the support in this House for a 10-year, truly long-term plan to secure the best possible deal from the spending review. The logic is inescapable—if the NHS can have a 10-year plan, why cannot education too?

I hope that this will be the start of a different sort of planning for schools and colleges. If education really is to be a ladder of opportunity for everyone, so that people can get the education, skills and training to climb to the top and get the jobs, skills and prosperity that they and our country need, surely there should be proper strategic overview and a long-term plan to ensure that everyone has the tools and support necessary to climb that ladder.