Sheku Kanneh-Mason is indeed an acclaimed cellist, and Trinity School and all of us are rightly very proud of him. I will say more about the importance of music and other enrichment activities and why they are under threat.
Students from across the city not only enjoy playing or singing in an ensemble, but are equipping themselves with perseverance, self-belief and a lifelong love of music. It is particularly pleasing to note that Nottingham is in the top quintile for those on pupil premium learning a musical instrument. However, while the Nottingham Music Hub is always exploring new ways to generate income, I am concerned that the local authority and individual schools may find it more difficult to fund the service in the future.
Schools provide other opportunities. The number of children able to swim 25 metres at the end of key stage 2 has more than doubled to 45% in the past four years. Some 6,000 primary and 5,300 secondary students are involved in competitive school games and sports.
I began the debate by saying that I wanted the Minister to recognise that there is much to be proud of in Nottingham schools, but I would be failing my constituents if I did not also acknowledge that we need to do much better in ensuring that every child leaves school with the skills and knowledge they need to lead successful adult lives. Formal qualifications are an important measure, but they are not the only one. I hope the Minister will recognise that good schools also ensure that students are resilient, kind, reflective, motivated, confident, and have respect for themselves and others. Character development is vital and should be valued.
Many Nottingham families live in poverty and some have low aspirations. Too many live in inadequate or overcrowded housing and have very low incomes and poor health, both mental and physical. Some children face additional challenges because English is not their first language, and we know that white working-class children, especially boys, are often the hardest to reach. Even where children are making good progress at primary school and are achieving at the end of year 6, that is too often not maintained to GCSE level. We clearly need to improve the transition from primary to secondary education, but there is concern that the Government’s emphasis on a limited range of academic subjects up to age 16 is off-putting to those pupils, including the academically able, who would be enthused by a more vocational route. That view is expressed not only by teachers and heads, but by the former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker, who has championed high-quality technical education for more than two decades.
Nottingham is working hard to provide sufficient primary school places by expanding existing good schools. We know that the bulge in pupil numbers will mean a shortfall in secondary school places if action is not taken now. A reliance on the emergence of new free schools is not enough. Nottingham needs extra capital resources to expand existing schools or to open new ones. The high level of in-year admissions is a further challenge, particularly for our maintained schools. The current system is not transparent and there is concern that some academies are reluctant to admit pupils with additional needs, placing some of the most vulnerable children at risk of missing time in school. The White Paper, “Educational Excellence Everywhere”, called for local authorities to have a co-ordinating role in dealing with such admissions. Will the Minister say whether he will be returning to that proposal?
A further concern is the high level of permanent exclusions at key stages 3 and 4. Last year, 108 city children were permanently excluded, and this year the number is set to be even higher. It is deeply concerning that a high proportion of those students have special educational needs. The pupil referral unit now has more than 300 students on its books, and those young people are placed with a number of alternative providers across the city, but the cost is very high and outcomes are poor. Funding for such provision falls on the local authority and diverts resources away from other high-needs children. What action will the Government take to incentivise schools to tackle poor behaviour, rather than using exclusion too widely to shift responsibility?
As the Minister is well aware, school funding—already a hot topic—rightly became the focus of debate during the general election. I have listened carefully to the Minister’s responses since then, and I do not believe he has adequately addressed my voters’ concerns. He says that the schools budget has been protected in real terms since 2010, but he knows that pupil numbers are rising. The cake may be bigger, but it has to be shared between more people. Will he come clean and admit that the increase in the budget has not been sufficient to protect per pupil funding in real terms? He knows that all schools face higher national insurance contributions, pension contributions, unfunded national pay rises and now the apprenticeship levy.
“funding per pupil will, on average, rise only from £5,447 in 2015-16 to £5,519 in 2019-20, a real-terms reduction once inflation is taken into account.”
The Minister says he will support schools to offset these pressures, but I can find little evidence of such support in delivering the savings required. One head at a primary academy told me:
“We have already renegotiated every single contract both as one school and as part of a Multi-Academy Trust. We have lost and not replaced three teaching assistants, a sports coach, a music teacher and an art teacher. Our pupils walk to their Swimming lessons for 12 sessions rather than travelling by bus for 36. If a teacher is ill, we don’t use qualified teachers to stand in front of classes until day four of their absence because insurance for teacher absence that starts after the third day is considerably cheaper than insurance that starts on the first day.”
It really is that bleak. Schools in Nottingham are making cuts that have a direct and damaging impact on the quality of education.
The head of an outstanding primary school told me that they had cut the number of teaching assistants, teachers and learning mentors, increasing pressure on remaining staff and providing less support for children with additional needs. As he said:
“All of this is also taking place within the context of an increase in the numbers of families who need extra support, due to benefit changes, higher levels of domestic violence, more families being evicted...and the rise of the number of families seeking support from food banks.”
Secondary schools paint a similar picture: fewer teachers, larger classes, less subject choice, and cuts to after-school activities.
I note that the Minister has sometimes resorted to blaming his Government’s choices on the budget deficit in 2010. That is simply not good enough. His party has been in power for seven years. They promised that as a result of their austerity plans, the deficit would be eliminated by 2015. Any shred of economic credibility is long gone and their decision to spend £1 billion on buying a parliamentary majority underlines that point.
A head told me what inadequate funding means to his school: “Am I able to replace the 18 failing interactive whiteboards in our classrooms? No. Am I able to purchase library books to inspire a love for reading in the next generation? No. Can the disabled child’s carer have overtime to accompany her for a full day’s educational visit? Of course, yes. As a result of that carer’s overtime, can the five-year-olds have another set of glue sticks for the summer term? No.” He said:
“As the Headteacher I am not bemoaning the lack of capacity for investing in education at a level that will make a significant difference to the life chances of my pupils;
I am genuinely struggling to see how I can squeeze basic school provisions out of the funding available.”
On top of the existing level of real terms cuts we also face the prospect of a new national funding formula that will take money away from every single school in my constituency. I welcome the Minister’s promise that,
“there will be no cut in per pupil funding as a consequence of moving to the national fair funding formula”,
but, as he knows, protecting a budget in cash terms is no protection at all. With rising inflation and increasing demands—for example, the introduction of much needed mental health support—school leaders simply feel unable to deliver what is asked of them. I could fill hours with the testimony of dedicated school staff who feel that the Government are not giving them the support they need. Adequate funding, especially for schools serving areas of high deprivation, is essential. Schools cannot keep doing more with less. They are at breaking point.
I hope the Minister will not simply dismiss my concerns and those of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend Alex Norris, who will speak shortly. I want the Minister to commit to, at the very least, maintaining school funding in real terms for Nottingham schools. If he cannot, I will not stop asking. I also want him to come and see why I am asking.
Last Friday I visited the city schools exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary. The gallery’s head of learning told me,
“what we are hearing from teachers again and again is that coming to a gallery, working with artists, really helps their children think differently, think creatively, question, be critical and reflective...particularly it builds confidence in those children who are told too often they are wrong, to keep quiet and not question. The gallery offers those children a place to thrive.”
While I was there, students from Southwold Primary enjoyed telling me about their work. Southwold is a good school, but it serves one of the most disadvantaged parts of my constituency: 46.1% of pupils have English as an additional language and 47.6% are eligible for free school meals. I have seen for myself the creative ways in which the school works to give their children a great start in life.
The head said,
“we are giving our city children the experiences that more affluent counterparts can afford. Our pupils find it hard to make connections due to limited experiences and we need to provide these experiences so they can better access the curriculum and understand contexts for learning.”
She explained that in last year’s SATs reading test, one text was about a safari park; some children did not know what a safari park was, let alone visited one. As she says:
“All this needs funding and at the moment we are trying to do it on a shoestring.”
Nottingham’s schools need our support. They need the resources to do their vital job of investing in the next generation. I hope the Minister will come and see our schools for himself and commit to supporting them, enabling every Nottingham child to thrive.