Children’s Education Recovery and Childcare Costs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:05 pm on 7th June 2022.

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Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 6:05 pm, 7th June 2022

It is an absolute pleasure to follow Mark Logan. That was a lovely story about his daughter, and I wish her a happy birthday. I hope the whole family enjoys a wonderful day out in central London.

It is also an absolute pleasure to speak today in this important debate and I hope that we will have further opportunities to debate education, which is such a central issue for our country. I would like to speak in support of the motion, but before I start I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the education professionals in the country, including teachers, support staff and people working in colleges, higher education and the childcare sector, as well as those, like some in my own family, who work in delivering apprenticeships.

I am keen to focus on a few key points because I realise that time is pressing. The first is the fundamental importance for any country of investing in education. The second is the scale of the issues we face following the pandemic. Some of these have been addressed by other colleagues, but I would like to address them a little further. The third is the need for the Government to raise their sense of ambition in this important area, and the fourth is the need for a much more robust and deliverable strategy.

First, turning to the overall importance of education, it is great to see cross-party agreement on this important and central area of Government work. In my opinion, it is an absolute first-order necessity for any Government, in any country in the world, to invest in the future of their people. While it is acknowledged across the House that that is fundamental, I believe we need to think quite deeply about what that actually means, based on our own experience in this country and on international comparisons, because some of it is a little bit challenging for some of our colleagues.

The evidence base from around the world and from recent British history shows clearly that investment over time ultimately means better-paid teachers—whether people are in favour of that or not, the evidence shows that to be the case—and it also means investing in resources such as better school buildings and better labs for teaching science, as well as better provision of other forms of resource to help teaching, whether that is technology or other forms of resource such as school trips or school sports. These things all add up. Unfortunately, they are all expensive, but they are investments and they should be seen not as short-term costs to the public but as a long-term investment in our future as a country, in our economy, in our people and in our aspirations as a society.

We can see this in some of the achievements in recent times. Programmes such as the London Challenge are an example. At one point, London schools were seen by many commentators as being in a really difficult place, but determined investment, with central Government funding the resources, working in close partnership with schools, teachers, parents and local communities, drove up standards in London despite all the challenges. There are numerous other examples. Some time ago, we saw the literacy and numeracy strategy introduced by David Blunkett when he was the new Secretary of State for Education.

The investment in science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects is another example. The way that STEM has been championed and the growing number of young people studying A-levels in maths, science and technology is a national success that predates the current Government. It is something we should all be proud of, and it should be seen as a long-term investment in this country’s future. It should not be a party political issue, but we should be honest about the resources needed. These examples are seen in jurisdictions around the world—in US states, in individual cities and in European and Asian countries—where exactly the same process is under way. Governments are determined to invest in education because they believe in their country’s children and their country’s future.

Sadly we have faced the most awful setback to those aspirations because of the pandemic, and it is worth reflecting on how awful it was. It has been wonderful, a real pleasure, to see people out in the streets again over the past few days, yet things were so different only a few months ago. These are anecdotes, but I still find it hard to think back to the Zoom meetings in which parents had to scurry off to offer a rudimentary education to their children, with the support of online resources. We should remember the difficulties experienced by young people who had to sit public exams for the first time. That is the scale of the challenge we face. It is not an insignificant challenge, and we should not underestimate how difficult it is for our schools and universities.

We need a focused strategy that is up to the scale of the challenge. Kevan Collins is a respected educationist who worked with the Government and their Liberal Democrat and Conservative predecessors for years when he was at the Education Endowment Foundation. He has a very strong academic background and is respected across the education profession, but a year ago, sadly, the only thing he was able to do was resign, because he felt so strongly about the lack of resources targeted at the problem I have described. I hope there is all-party appreciation of what it means for a senior public servant to take such action. I am sure he would have loved not to resign. He wanted to lead programmes to improve the quality of education in this country, but he was left with no choice.

We need a proper strategy, and we need to think about why Kevan Collins left. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, Will Quince, is a committed chap, and I hope he will look at this again. The Government need to think about the strategy, invest significant amounts of money—far more than currently planned—and focus on what actually works. My hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson clearly illustrated the principles that should be considered but sadly are not.

To make matters worse, it is appalling when we contrast and compare the Government’s spending on education with their spending on other things, such as the poor-quality spending on PPE, which was often not procured effectively or in line with Government procurement rules, or the Chancellor’s recent failure to focus money where it is most needed to fully address to cost of living crisis. He gave handouts to people with second homes, which I am sure they welcome but is not an effective use of public money.

I would like Ministers to look at this again and to think carefully about what a good strategy might look like. I would argue that a good strategy has the appropriate funding, is school-led and is built on best practice. We have heard a lot of talk about best practice, but international success is based on best practice. There is widespread agreement and consensus on what that might be.

We also need to work with parents. We have heard about the importance of breakfast clubs, early years education and other forms of support—the success of the education maintenance allowance has been mentioned —in providing practical support to families who are currently squeezed. There is emerging evidence on things like targeted funding, continuing professional development for teachers, small-group tutoring and oracy, which my hon. Friend Emma Hardy mentioned. All of this should be in the Government’s strategy, but sadly it is not.

I appreciate time is at a premium, so I will sum up. It has been a pleasure to speak today, and it is wonderful that we are debating such an important issue. I hope the House will find more time for debate, and I hope the Government will address this issue and offer education greater priority in their thinking. Education seems to be a big gap in Government policy at the moment. It is almost as if education has been forgotten, but it is vital and should be the first duty of any Government.