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Department for Education

Part of Supplementary Estimate 2018-19 – in the House of Commons at 4:33 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester 4:33 pm, 26th February 2019

It is a great pleasure to be the tail-end Charlie in this high-quality debate and to follow Caroline Lucas.

I should declare an interest: I come from a family of teachers. In fact, my elder son is now a teacher too. What comes with that is a commitment to not only visiting schools but engaging with them, as well as with our further education college—the outstanding Gloucestershire College—and the University of Gloucestershire. I also ought to refer to the newest university in the country, Hartpury University, in the constituency of my neighbour, my right hon. Friend Mr Harper. They all have masses to offer lots of people with skills and interests in various sectors.

This debate focuses on estimates and therefore inevitably on money. However, it is encouraging that the debate has been about not only what an Opposition spokesman in an earlier debate called “growing the cake” but improving the cake. How do we get the outcomes that are obviously affected by the input of money but where the relationship is not absolute? What really makes the difference?

I ask myself that a lot because in my constituency we have outstanding primary schools in areas that would be considered economically deprived, such as Tredworth, Coney Hill, Robinswood and Finlay Community School, which is on the verge of outstanding. Coney Hill is in fact rated the fourth best primary school in the county of Gloucestershire, and the second best is Field Court, also in my constituency, which is in a slightly more affluent part of the city. We therefore know that it can be done, and schools that have succeeded, such as Coney Hill, have not done so because they get a great deal more money.

It seems to me that the challenge for us as MPs is how to know what does make a difference. How can we be sure about what a school needs and whether it is getting enough of it? How can each school—every one of which will claim, and they may be right, that they have cut to the bone in order to make sure that every penny is used effectively—know how good they are as against other schools? How can we compare them, and how can we see how good they are at managing the business of a school, as well as being an outstanding place of learning for all the pupils there?

In this sense, of course, the statistics do not always help to shed light. The IFS, an independent body, tells us that the funding for five to 16-year-olds will have gone up by 50% in real terms from 2010 to 2020. If I translate this into a local figure, Gloucestershire schools will be getting 3.1% more in 2019, but salaries have increased by 3.5% and there are the pension increases as well. I deduce from that that this is not an issue of cuts—that is a very easy word to use, particularly in opposition—but of costs growing faster than the increases that schools, further education colleges and universities are getting from the Government. That is the challenge for heads and others who are running schools.

In a debate in Westminster Hall at the end of January on education in Gloucestershire, the Minister for School Standards referred to a number of things that the Government are doing to try to help schools with the issues I have mentioned. They include the schools buying club, the schools commercial team, the DFE schools buying strategy, a pilot project in the south-west of England at which 39 schools in Gloucestershire are registered, a focus on supply teachers and agency workers costs, and a benchmarking website. All these things sound very encouraging, but I sense—the Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills will be able to shed light on this—that not all of these are really up and running or are easy-to-access tools for us or the heads of the schools.

I turn now to further education funding, which is of course the worst part for funding in the education sector, despite all that has been done with the new national colleges, T-levels, the investment in apprenticeships and so on. The fundamental fact we have to deal with is that we are in the bottom quartile for OECD skills, at level 4 or 5, for the education of our apprentices and others. At level 4 or 5, we are really way below where we should be in terms of the numbers studying. The letter I wrote with my colleague Nic Dakin to the Chancellor focused on the fact that, of all the areas in education that need funding, we really are looking for more to boost productivity and to boost what our young people can give. As 165 Members signed that letter, I urge the Minister to consider it.