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It is a pleasure to follow Thelma Walker, who speaks with a huge amount of authority on this issue. I congratulate Meg Hillier on securing this debate, and it was a pleasure to support her application.
I should declare an interest, albeit not a pecuniary interest. My wife is a primary schoolteacher, and as comfy as the sofa is, I prefer the bed. I also have a seven-year-old in a local primary school and a young daughter who will start primary school next year, so I suppose that I have a vested interest.
Like many of my constituents, as a parent I completely understand the importance of education. When I speak to constituents, education is often their second largest priority—second only to our NHS. As a Conservative, I completely support equality of opportunity, which stems from education. Education is at the very heart of it. To that end, I am delighted that 1.9 million more children than in 2010 are being taught in good and outstanding schools—this has increased from 66% to 84%.
This is a debate in anticipation of the Government’s spending review, and although it is not only about money, money is inevitably an important factor. Let me start with the bits that I very much support and welcome. I welcome the introduction of the national funding formula, which is supported by a not insignificant £1.3 billion across 2018-19 and 2019-20. I welcome the fact that the Government protected the schools budget up to 2016, when other Departments faced cuts in the early coalition years. I welcome the fact that the core school funding budget will rise from £41 billion in 2017-18 to £42 billion this year and £43.5 billion in 2019-20.
One of the most enjoyable parts of being an MP is attending assemblies, which I do regularly on Friday mornings, and listening to not only teachers and headteachers but parents, governors and, indeed, pupils, to hear what they think and how they talk about our role here and how it impacts on them. I suppose this is a good juncture to pay tribute to all the teachers and the amazing schools we have in Colchester. Having met those teachers, headteachers, governors and parents, I find that we are asking our schools to do more than ever before and that is putting unbelievable pressure on teachers—I see that at home, but I also understand it from having spoken to teachers from across the schools in the constituency.
Schools are facing unprecedented cost pressures, and I wish to touch on a few of them because the context of the pressures schools are under is important when we talk about additional funding in education budgets. These cost pressures include providing support and intervention for children with specific learning difficulties; mental health issues; employer pension contributions; the national living wage; academies and multi-academy trusts potentially having less bargaining power than local authorities used to in terms of economies of scale; the costs that came with the general data protection rule; the rising cost of utilities; the apprenticeship levy; the growing cost of appeals; the costs of changing to multi-academy trusts; staff development; staff recruitment; and of course the teachers’ pay award. I have just touched on a few of the many rising cost pressures on schools.
In the short time available, I wish to touch on further education, which I genuinely believe is verging on crisis. For 16 and 17-year-olds, funding has been frozen at £4,000 per student since 2013, and for 18-year-olds, it has been frozen at £3,300 since 2014. As I just mentioned, colleges and sixth forms are not immune to all those different cost rises and more, and the Government have imposed a range of new requirements. Costs have risen sharply and the budget has not risen to reflect that. That is not good for students; it is damaging our international competitiveness; and it harms social mobility.
The Secretary of State is no longer in his place, but the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills is. They will know, because I have lobbied them both on this issue on numerous occasions, that I believe that schools have already maximised the efficiency savings that were available to them. A toolkit was helpfully provided by the Department, and schools have used it and gone even further. I genuinely believe that there is no more fat left to trim, and I do not want our headteachers focusing on how they can further squeeze their budgets; I want them focusing on educational attainment and improving outcomes for students in all our schools.
So I do have some asks. I know the Minister has heard them before, but I do not apologise for repeating them. We do need an increase in the revenue budget and in the high-needs budget. The rate for 16 to 19-year-old pupils must increase. The national funding formula needs to be rolled out and implemented in full as soon as possible. Funding settlements should be for a minimum of three years. We cannot expect schools to produce three-year budgets but not give them that certainty and consistency in their funding. We have to increase the capital budget for our schools.