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Department for Education

Part of Supplementary Estimate 2018-19 – in the House of Commons at 4:03 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Thelma Walker Thelma Walker Labour, Colne Valley 4:03 pm, 26th February 2019

I am proud to have supported the request for today’s debate that was co-ordinated by my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, Robert Halfon and Layla Moran.

A report published last week by the Resolution Foundation predicted that the proportion of children in relative poverty could hit 37% by 2023. Low pay and cuts to welfare have hit and will continue to hit disadvantaged families the hardest, and I know all about that as a former headteacher of a school with a Sure Start centre on site. Not only does poverty affect a child’s experiences, but it is significant in determining their life chances. In education, the attainment gap between the most disadvantaged children and their peers is visible by the age of five, and it continues on throughout their childhood, potentially leading to poorer qualifications and difficulties in employment later in life.

As stated in the Education Committee’s report on life chances, the Government’s strategy on early years lacks direction. If the number of children in poverty is rising, the early-years workforce needs to be equipped with the support and resources to be the first line of defence in improving children’s life chances and to work on early intervention, as mentioned by Tim Loughton. What is the Department doing to anticipate those challenges, rather than responding in the midst of a crisis when it is much harder and more costly to fix? In addition, funding pressures on local authorities and services have led to reduced support for children and families. Too often, schools take on the burden of providing that support.

As a former teacher and headteacher, I understand their drive to do whatever they can to help their pupils, but I also see the pressure that schools and teachers are already under from heavy workloads and funding cuts. Some 95% of schools in my Colne Valley constituency are facing a shortfall compared with funding levels in 2015-16, and 67% of schools in my constituency have lost over £150 per pupil—seven are losing over £400 per pupil. Just think what could be done for each individual child with that money.

My constituency has had a cumulative shortfall of over £5.5 million since 2015, while pupil numbers have risen by more than 800. At my last meeting with Colne Valley headteachers, they told me that the situation has led to cuts in staffing, resources and provision overall. They also talked about the difficulties in SEND provision due to a lack of child and adolescent mental health services and a lack of funding for the delivery of education, health and care plans.

Those headteachers said that their teachers are suffering from stress due to not being able to provide children with the support that their experience and professional awareness tell them is necessary. Let us listen to the professionals. Mounting workloads, rising class sizes and an ever-growing list of responsibilities have pushed classroom teachers to work a 60-hour week. All of that hard work is rewarded by stagnating wages.

It is therefore no surprise that teachers young and old, the recently qualified and those with years of experience, are leaving the profession. The number of teachers leaving exceeded the number joining in 2017, which shows just how serious this crisis is. I welcome the Government’s intentions in their recruitment and retention strategy, but committing £130 million for the delivery of the early career framework in 2021, alongside other smaller measures, is not enough to tackle the root causes that are draining morale in the profession.

If the starting pay for teachers remains low compared with other graduate professions, dedicated and passionate potential trainees may choose other careers. If qualified teachers do not have the resources to fully deliver lesson plans, or to offer extra support to those who need it, they are still going to experience frustration. If responsibilities for safeguarding and mental health, and so on, continue to be piled on to teachers, their workloads will not go down. What consideration are the Government giving to these wider, more fundamental issues in the education system that, if addressed, could deliver long-term benefits for both recruitment and retention?

All of us in this House want the best for the children in our schools. We want them to experience the joy of learning, to develop the skills to succeed in life as well as employment and, ultimately, to live a fulfilled and productive life. But if the Department does not prepare for rising levels of need or for rising numbers, if it does not address the root causes of stress and pressure for teachers, and if it does not give schools the tools to support both learners and educators, we will not be able to achieve those goals.

Unless education is fully funded, I can see children’s rights to a free education and to different forms of education being eroded, and I urge the Department to reflect on today’s debate and to use it as an opportunity to take radical action.