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Department for Education

Part of Supplementary Estimate 2018-19 – in the House of Commons at 4:21 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham 4:21 pm, 26th February 2019

I welcome today’s debate. Already, we have heard a whole range of broad themes around education, including, importantly, how we can support and improve the life chances of our young people. It is pretty obvious that the Department has a wide range of responsibilities to secure the delivery of high quality education that meets the needs of our young people and our country. It is right that, over the years, we have seen a focus on rigour in the system and, importantly, that we have ensured that our children and young people are supported and that they get the right kind of care, skill and support to enhance their opportunities and their life chances.

I welcome the fact that, since 2010, there are now 1.9 million more pupils being taught in schools that are rated “good” and “outstanding” by Ofsted. That represents about 86% of all pupils. The fact is, however, no Government, and no Government policy on education, can ever stand still. As we have already heard from friends and colleagues—hon. and right hon. Members—as part of the comprehensive spending review it is important that the Government consider how schools, education providers and local authorities are funded for the services that they provide.

We have also heard about care today—care for young people. Care is provided not just by our schools, but through local authorities. It is a fact that many of our local authorities are strapped for cash and challenged with many other pressures. Education stands at the foundations of our country, and it is, of course, where our next generation comes from in terms not just of our labour market, but of our citizens. It is our duty to equip them with the right kind of skills and to ensure that they have every opportunity when it comes to making a success of their future.

Like many Members, I have many excellent examples in my constituency of outstanding leaders, teachers, education providers, schools and academies. All of them are pioneering and innovating. In the Witham constituency, we have the remarkable Connected Learning Multi-Academy Trust. It is headed up by a remarkable former head teacher called Mrs Jane Bass. The success of that trust is quite phenomenal in the way in which it has turned around failing schools that were within the local authority’s remit. It has done that through demonstrating leadership and providing resource, sometimes with disagreements with the local authority on funding. We have all had to fight alongside our headteachers and our schools to really make sure that they can bring in the resources. Many hon. Members have highlighted what academy conversion does to enhance schools’ financial resources too. School improvement plans also play an important role in turning around many schools that are not performing. That, again, is where resources are needed.

I want to touch on a couple of issues with academies and academy trusts. My right hon. Friend the Minister for School Standards and, I think, everybody in the Department is fully aware of the Academies Enterprise Trust and the historical issues that have been associated with it. I urge Ministers never to take their eye off the ball with regard to governance. The governing structures of some these rather big multi-academy trusts—in the case of the AET, one of the fastest growing trusts in the country—did not have the necessary oversight and accountability, and that then led to problems with school exclusions and other wider issues. That is only one of the trusts covering not just my constituency but neighbouring areas too.

Many parts of our communities and constituencies are experiencing considerable population growth. We are now looking at new developments in Witham town and in areas such as Stanway that come under the Colchester borough where we are seeing new investment in schools, which is the right thing to do.

Only a week ago, we were speaking in Westminster Hall about another issue that has been raised today—financial support for children with special education needs. I do not want to go over many of the points that have been covered already. The governance reforms are welcome, as is the new 2015 SEND code of practice, which is vital. At the same time, however, the introduction of the education, health and care plans is leading to a much greater increase in demand, complexity in particular cases, and, unsurprisingly, pressures on local government and authority funding. Essex County Council has experienced exactly this. Yes, there has been more resource from the Government centrally, and in Essex that equates to over £3 million a year for the county council, but we still have pressures. For example, issues around the transfer of the block grant for schools from the county council are causing tensions locally.

There are many other issues around skills, apprenticeships and support for young people, but for the purposes of this debate we should say that we pride ourselves, as a country and a nation, on our education system. It is absolutely right that we all collectively work together to do more to provide the aspiration, hope and opportunity that will support the life chances of young people in our country.