As with my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, it was in my excitement at the start of my speech that I said we might never hear from my hon. Friends again; I did not mean that, obviously.
The desperate state of schools in the north-east is clear from the speeches that my hon. Friends have made, but I am afraid schools throughout the country are in similar circumstances. The crisis in schools is a national failure, perpetrated by the Conservative Government, and made worse by news today of the failed free schools policy and by the decision made by the Prime Minister in her short time in office to divert school funding to grammar schools. That is despite all the teaching bodies, the unions and thousands of teachers talking about the crisis in schools. The Government’s response is to deny that the problem exists, trot out the mendacious response that funding in schools has never been higher, and try to introduce an inequitable new funding formula that has been universally condemned and under which every school in England is likely to face funding cuts in the next three years.
I hope that today the Minister will at least accept that there is a crisis in schools, and take the opportunity to explain why the Government are not responding to the consultation on the new funding formula this side of the general election. Surely the public deserve, at the very least, a summary of responses to the consultation, so that they can make a fully informed decision before they go into the polling booth.
Alan Hardie, the principal of the excellent Whitburn Church of England Academy in my constituency was recently forced, as many others have been, to do the Government’s dirty work; he had to send a begging letter to parents, asking for donations of £10 a month to cover basic resources. Alan said:
“We hear the same phrase repeated time and time again by the Department for Education that school funding has never been higher. What they neglect to mention is more and more of this funding returns directly back to central government through the very significant increases in employer’s National Insurance and pension contributions. This is a stealth tax that means that schools have less and less to spend on the pupils in their care”.
The truth is that schools in England are facing their first real-terms funding cuts in 20 years, and must find about £3 billion-worth of savings—on average about 7% of their overall budget; that the secondary schools that will experience the largest cuts will, in real terms, lose an average of £291,000; and that funding to the most deprived secondary schools, where more than 30% of children receive free school meals, will fall, while the highest relative gains will go to pupils in the least deprived areas. It is an all-too-familiar approach from the Government, who, time and again, make those who can least afford it pay for their mistakes.
Since 2010 the Conservatives have offered much in the way of rhetoric on education, but have consistently failed to make that a reality. Instead, they have left in their wake a litany of broken promises. They promised us they would recruit and keep the best teachers. Yet schools face a crisis of both recruitment and retention. Teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers, and many more are set to follow. The Conservatives promised they would create small schools with smaller class sizes, but the opposite is true. Even analysis by the Department for Education has revealed that more than 500,000 primary school children are now in super-sized classes of more than 30. In secondary schools more than 300,000 pupils are taught in classes of more than 30. The Government promised in their manifesto that money following children into schools would be protected and that funding would rise in line with pupil numbers. Yet the National Audit Office has confirmed that schools are required to make £3 billion of efficiency savings.
Worse still, the Department for Education does not have a clue where it expects schools to make those savings. Perhaps the Minister can use the debate as an opportunity to let us, and schools, know how the savings can be made; or will he confirm what we all know—that the only way to make the savings is by schools continuing to increase pupil-to-teacher ratios, reduce basic services such as cleaning and site and premises work, stop investment in books and IT equipment, cease providing apprenticeships to people such as Liam, who was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West, design curriculum offers that fulfil only basic requirements, not replace staff who leave, outsource support services, and lose more support staff, teaching assistants, lunchtime supervisors, caretakers and—the death knell—teachers?
The National Union of Teachers general secretary, Kevin Courtenay, said that headteachers are cutting back on all spending areas to try to keep teachers in front of classes. That is where the Government have taken us; it is the depth of the crisis in schools. Schools are struggling just to put teachers in classrooms. He has said that the fears about schools operating on a four-day week are real. Four-day weeks—that is the future of children’s education under another Tory Government.
Children with special educational needs and disabilities are another group that the Government promised to prioritise, but it is the hardest hit, as specialist support is no longer available.
The pupil premium, which was designed to help children from poorer backgrounds, is being used by almost a third of schools to cover their budget shortages, with schools with the highest numbers of disadvantaged pupils more likely to report cuts to staff as a result of those shortages. Is it not true that the Government’s priorities do not lie with disadvantaged children or children with special educational needs?