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Department for Education

Part of Supplementary Estimate 2018-19 – in the House of Commons at 4:43 pm on 26th February 2019.

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Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education) 4:43 pm, 26th February 2019

I thank Meg Hillier for introducing this extremely interesting debate. I also send my best wishes to the school mentioned by Layla Moran. As a former teacher, I know the feeling of dread when the inspectors are coming—in Scotland we had Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education, rather than Ofsted—so I send my best wishes to her school, and indeed to any school undergoing inspection at the moment.

As we have heard, school budgets are being stretched to breaking point. Richard Graham talked about the costs pressures, which include pay rises for teachers, higher employer contributions to national insurance and teachers’ pension schemes, and rising costs. There is an urgent need for a better commitment from the Government, because these issues become even more pronounced when we focus on sixth-form and further education spending, tuition fees and academies. We know that in the next six years there will be a 19% increase in pupil numbers in England. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch highlighted that it is not enough to just increase education funding, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members on the Government Benches. We know that the budget is increasing, but it has to be a per pupil increase in spending to have any impact.

I would just like to mention academies. We do not have academies in Scotland. In England, they were hailed as a way forward and a remedy for failing schools. At first, it looked as though that was the case, because money and resources were thrown at them. However, we now see a disturbing situation where some high-performing and improving academies are accepting fewer children from disadvantaged backgrounds or pupils with additional support needs. Surely that cannot be considered a success. Pupils with special educational needs must be properly catered for. If they are not being catered for within the academy system, there has to be greater spending on them in maintained schools and that increase must be significant. We are not talking about a small increase in per pupil spending: if they have been taken out of the academy programme, we have to put serious investment into them in other schools.

On academies, the teaching profession in England has experienced an attack on terms and conditions, including the ability of school leaders to bypass nationally agreed pay scales. That allows schools to stretch budgets further or ensure huge pay awards to the chief executives of multi-academy trusts without, it seems, any scrutiny. Essentially, Department for Education funding is being syphoned off to pay individuals, regardless of the success of the academy itself. According to the Education Policy Institute, there is little measureable difference between the performance of academies and local authority schools. Underperformance in academy trusts, including a lack of diversity in the pupil cohort, must be challenged, as should academy trusts that are paying excessive salaries to CEOs, a point highlighted by Priti Patel.

A number of hon. Members talked about post-16 funding, including Robert Halfon and, in particular, Emma Reynolds. We know that since 2010 this funding has been cut sharply. Caroline Lucas talked about the 22% cut in funding that has damaged the variety of courses, the number of STEM courses offered and the provision of extra-curricular activities, and has resulted in larger class sizes.

Given the hardship that further education colleges are having to cope with, it is little surprise that Ofsted’s annual report concluded:

“We are concerned about the financial sustainability of the college sector, and the clear impact that real-term cuts to Further Education funding can have on provision.”

A long-term overhaul of post-16 education in England is needed. Courses must be linked specifically to needs in the labour market. We regularly hear rhetoric about positive destinations for young people, and how we have to value all types of education and all outcomes for young people, but increasing the budget for further education is only a part of that. We also have to make sure that courses are properly tailored to needs in the job market. Brexit will make this issue even more acute, so England really should be looking at what we are doing in Scotland. In Scotland, we are ensuring that college places are actually linked directly to employment requirements, and we have the highest number of young people going on to positive destinations.

One issue that has not been mentioned this afternoon is tuition fees, but I think it is important if we are talking about budgets. We estimate that £23.4 billion is expected to be paid out in student loans this year, with capital repayments amounting to only £1.1 billion. As became apparent last December, these huge tuition fees betray a staggeringly short-term perspective that has added £12 billion to our national debt.

Up until now, it suited the Government to pretend that student debts are genuine loans, but it is now clear that many graduates will never earn enough to pay off these loans in full, which will result in the Government effectively having to pay the loans off. Why continue to put these pressures on students? Why not look at proper funding of our courses in higher education?

In conclusion, education funding must serve young people regardless of their background or educational needs. We must ensure that 16 to 19-year-olds are properly catered for. Funding must be adequate to ensure that young people avoid a lifetime of debt, and finally, meagre education budgets should not be siphoned off to line the pockets of rich businesspeople in academy trusts.