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Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 3:04 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Alex Chalk Alex Chalk Conservative, Cheltenham 3:04 pm, 16th October 2019

That is absolutely right because the Government did put education front and centre, and it was rather telling that the hon. Lady did not quote from the Queen’s Speech. I must also take issue with her suggestion that standards are going down when the opposite is the case. How wrong it is not to pay tribute to the fact that 160,000 more six-year-olds are on track to achieve good literacy scores than in 2012. We should be applauding that, not denigrating it. It is certainly the case in Cheltenham where, year after year, our brilliant teachers and headteachers, supported by their governors, are delivering improved literacy, numeracy, A-levels, GCSEs and so on.

The reason I am so pleased with the Queen’s Speech is that the settlement proposed within it addresses two running sores, the first of which is fair funding. Under the decades-old unfair funding formula—generated, I believe, in the 1990s—schools in Cheltenham were treated wholly unfairly compared with schools in London, Liverpool or Manchester by dint of the fact that Cheltenham sits within the rural county of Gloucestershire, and it was stipulated that we should receive less funding per pupil. The logic went, “Well, of course, these affluent rural counties simply do not have the same social problems.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Cheltenham has its fair share of social problems and challenges, and it was a completely unsustainable injustice that my constituents should have been short changed in that way.

If we strip aside the bluster, what has actually happened? In 2015, when I was elected, secondary schools in my constituency, because of the unfair funding formula to which I have referred, received a little under £4,200 per pupil. If this Queen’s Speech is passed, they will receive a minimum of £5,000 per pupil, and schools such as Pittville School and All Saints’ Academy will receive considerably more. By the way, all that comes before one adds on money for low prior attainment, English as an additional language and so on. All that is a significant improvement, and it has been difficult for people like me to listen to hon. Members—often on the Labour Benches, but not exclusively—complain about the fact that funding per pupil in their urban constituencies was due to go up from £5,500 to £5,600. We were on £4,200 in Cheltenham, and it is this Queen’s Speech and this Government that are addressing that to bring funding justice to my constituents. We should not downplay that; we should celebrate it.

The second issue that the Queen’s Speech addresses is the problem of special educational needs and disability funding. For reasons that are poorly understood, schools and teachers in my constituency have done an extraordinary job in dealing with an unexplained surge in pupil complexity. Whether it is Belmont School, which is meant to deal with moderate learning difficulties, or Bettridge School, which is meant to deal with severe learning difficulties, the truth is that they are having to address need that is far beyond that which existed only 15 years ago. Mainstream schools are having to hold on by their fingertips to children who, in the past, would have gone into special schools, because they recognise that putting those children into a different educational setting could put intolerable pressure on special schools. The schools are doing a magnificent job.

The reasons for the change, as I said, are poorly understood. Some say it has to do with family issues, and some people say—this is a difficult point to make, and I do not know whether there is any truth to it—that, because of the marvels of modern medicine, some children are surviving childbirth who might not have done so in past. Thank goodness that is the case, but it is potentially having a knock-on impact. The fact is that schools in Cheltenham are dealing with it.

I finish with an anecdote. I met a teacher at a school that deals with moderate learning difficulties. He has been a teacher for some 20 years and he told me that, when he first became a teacher, the pupil-teacher ratio was in the order of 16:1. In other words there were more teachers per pupil, but that modest increase was there to address the needs that existed. Now he says it is simply impossible because of the level of complexity that exists.

The Ridge Academy in my constituency deals with children with emotional and behavioural needs, and the complexity that is now being presented requires that additional resource. What is this Queen’s Speech doing? It is increasing the funding available in Gloucestershire from £60 million to £66 million, a 10% increase. That is an enormous increase, and it means that schools in my constituency can look forward to the future with confidence and that teachers who have done such a heroic job of continuing to go to work, knowing they may face a volatile situation, can do so with the confidence of knowing there is space available in the budget for the additional resources and the additional staff to keep the children safe, and to keep the teachers safe, too.

Of course there is more to do, and of course I would like more funding and all sorts of additional things, but this Queen’s Speech sets Cheltenham schools and Gloucestershire schools on a better path. If this House truly believes in social mobility and in ensuring that people go as far as their talents will take them, we have to make sure that the most powerful lever of social mobility is properly supported. That lever is in our schools, and it is this Government who are supporting them.