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School Funding: North-east of England — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:46 am on 26th April 2017.

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Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed 9:46 am, 26th April 2017

It is an honour to speak on the last day of Westminster Hall in this Parliament. I congratulate Mrs Hodgson on securing this debate. She was talking about the challenges of school funding, but it was disappointing not to hear about some of the impressive improvements in educational outputs across the north-east over the past few years. Children are getting the benefit of the improvements, which have come through the education framework and through Ofsted’s encouragement for schools to hone in on what is important in ensuring that children get the very best possible education from those early years and all the way through.

Speaking as the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, which is right up in the northern reaches of our region, we have a different set of challenges to many colleagues here today. I have very many small schools, where the challenges relate not to pressure on places, but to transport and the ability to sustain a school that, by definition, will have small and erratic numbers of children. The arrival of Ofsted can be good in one year and not so good in another, because cohorts vary so dramatically from year to year.

Some years ago, the Minister visited a high school at the very top of the constituency, in Berwick itself. We were pleased to welcome him there. The challenge is that the school, like every senior school, has a fixed cost with a small sixth form. There is no other school to go to—the next high school is 30 miles away. If a young person is choosing college rather than sixth form, the next provider is 60 or 70 miles away in my Labour colleagues’ constituencies. That is a very long way from Berwick. The challenge is to ensure that we can maintain the full provision of education in that far-flung school right up on the Scottish border.

What I would pitch to the Minister on this last day before we head into the election madness is that, in considering how to use continuing education more effectively, the Department needs to think more fully about how we encourage schools to use modern online learning tools. It would probably need capital investment, but it would help children in schools where the challenge is not so much, “Can we find a place?” but, “How can children access the high-tech learning skills they need to work in the industries that the north-east is growing, which will become, and are in some cases already, world-leading?”

I challenge the Minister to think about how we change the nature of the education that we give our children. The pupil-to-teacher ratio is important in younger years, but as children go up the school age groups, there is an opportunity to draw in excellent education from around the world. My son has recently been teaching himself how to write computer code—I cannot remember which one—because, apparently, that was of interest to him. He used a free Stanford University online tool. All he needed was a computer and decent broadband to sit in his room and learn it. He can now speak in a very strange language, none of which makes any sense to me, but he is now able to do stuff at school. The course was not available to him at school, so he did it off his own bat. Access to those tools are not expensive. They require technical investment, and for schools to think more broadly about how they use the funding that the Government provide to give children a chance to jump to another level in their educational attainment. The schools can be world-leading.