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I am incredibly grateful to my hon. Friend Mrs Hodgson, who is an excellent MP, for securing this important debate to highlight the complex issues facing education funding in the north-east. As a parent of three young children, a member of the Education Committee and a local MP who cares very much about the schools in my area, one of the best things about being an MP is getting to visit local schools. I am always blown away by the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the children I talk to and by the hard work and dedication of the education professionals I meet. However, it has become increasingly clear of late from the number of distressing stories I have heard that headteachers are deeply concerned about the real-terms cuts to their school budgets.
I recently visited a primary school in a deprived part of my constituency where the headteacher, who was clearly struggling to hold back tears, told me that budget pressures had forced her to cut the school’s family support counsellor and consider cancelling long-standing extracurricular activities for the children. It is clear that for a primary school that needs to provide all-round support for its children to lose such a counsellor through lack of resource not only has an impact on the school’s academic outcomes but makes it unable to help children and families who may face chaotic home lives or experiences that could lead to mental health issues, meaning that those issues will not be picked up in childhood and may escalate throughout adolescence and into adulthood. That is clearly a false economy, both in educational terms and more broadly. When children are suffering, they are not able to learn, which leads to lower educational attainment and compounds the social mobility challenge.
I have also spoken to headteachers who decided to take early retirement to reduce budget pressures, knowing that the school would save some money if it got in a younger headteacher on a lower wage. It is baffling that the Government are creating a situation where talented, valuable headteachers see no option but to retire for the sake of their schools’ budgets.
Although the Government repeatedly inform us that they are protecting schools funding—the Minister has already attempted to do that today—they know fine well that they are failing to give a full account of real-terms cuts. The introduction of the living wage and rising inflation, which, according to the Government’s own measure, is currently at 2.3%—its highest for more than three years—mean that schools have to make their money go significantly further. The National Audit Office has said that, as a direct result, schools will need to find an extra £3 billion by 2020, which equates to an 8% real-terms cut in funding. For one secondary school in my constituency, that amounts to a reduction of £761 per pupil by 2019 and, worryingly, the potential loss of 30 teaching jobs.
The Prime Minister’s so-called “great meritocracy” clearly does not extend to the north-east. While the children of the north-east continue to be let down, the current Tory Government unveil plans to expand grammar and free schools at a cost of £320 million. The Public Accounts Committee today denounced the Government’s free school programme as
“incoherent and too often poor value for money”.
I am also incredibly frustrated and angered that the Government are steamrolling ahead with their divisive grammar schools policy when there is overwhelming evidence that grammar schools do not increase social mobility. Statistics from the Sutton Trust show that less than 3% of entrants to grammar schools are entitled to free school meals; so the answer, for the Government, is to create more of them, rather than to invest in schools that now serve less well-off children. It defies common sense.
In response to the disappointing announcement of only £260 million of extra funding for existing schools in the north-east, Mike Parker, the director of Schools NorthEast, said:
“The Government has to recognise that if it wants a world class education system it has to fund schools appropriately.”
He also said that the funding settlement
“doesn’t fill the operational blackhole in schools across England.”
The question remains: why fund new grammar schools on an ideological whim when, as my hon. Friends have testified this morning, existing schools across the north-east are in desperate need of increased funding?
Headteachers across the north-east are expected to make exceptionally difficult decisions day to day, because of an inadequately funded system. If the Minister had to balance a school’s books, what would he cut—teachers, subject choices, support services or after-school clubs? Equally, he could increase class sizes; but let us remember that 900 pupils in primary schools in the north-east are already in classes of 40 or more. When the Prime Minister was shadow Education Secretary she railed against large class sizes, but they are increasing on her watch. The answer is clear: the Government should not cut school funding at all. It is often said in the north-east that the Tories cannot be trusted with the NHS. I say they cannot be trusted with the education system either.