Access to Education: South-East Northumberland

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:57 pm on 21 February 2024.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Shadow Minister (Education) 2:57, 21 February 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Henderson. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on behalf of my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell.

I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend Ian Lavery on securing this very important debate about access to education in his constituency and across south-east Northumberland. The issues he raised in his speech will resonate with Members of Parliament across the country in relation to their own communities. He speaks with passion and eloquence about the difficulties faced by children, their families and schools in his region. I pay tribute to him for his passion in speaking up for the needs of children and young people in his constituency and the quality of their education. He has focused on parental choice and engagement, recognising that barriers to learning and engagement are having a real impact. There are consequences of structural and other policy changes within our public services and education system on opportunity and equality. He speaks with a deep knowledge of the circumstances in his local area, and what has resulted from how changes have been made.

The reality is that children, students, teachers and parents in south-east Northumberland and across the country have been let down in cumulative ways by the many failures of the Conservative Government over the last 14 years, in our schools as well as in our infrastructure. Councils and their budgets have also been stripped to the bone, which has reduced their capacity and resilience.

My hon. Friend raised the concerning issue of parents and children not getting the schools of their choice. I think we all recognise that parental choice in education is important. As my hon. Friend set out in relation to the case studies he highlighted, issues can arise when year groups and friendships are split up, and children sometimes have to travel much further just to attend school. It is concerning to hear of students in his constituency who have been left out of education because of a lack of choice. I know that the Minister will be sympathetic to some of the challenges that have been outlined, and will give the Government’s response on what can be done for those students.

Let me turn to the main areas of concern for my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck. Because of fragment-ation in admission policymaking, some schools have policies that effectively can prioritise high-achieving students and exclude disadvantaged pupils. It is important to ensure that there is more democratic control and oversight over the admissions system. That is why Labour wants to require all schools, including academies, to co-operate with their local authorities on pupil admissions and place planning, and ensuring fairer access and greater certainty for children and their families. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that; I am sure that there are points he will want to raise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck also discussed, extremely effectively, other issues that affect access to education in south-east Northumberland. He referred to the difficulties faced by students with special educational needs. We know that the system isn’t working, and he set out the impact on families of not getting the support that they need. Issues around special educational needs and disabilities need to be a much greater priority for the Government. In all our constituencies, the system is beyond breaking point. Too many families face an uphill battle for the support their children need. It is often a battle that must be fought multiple times across a child’s school life—for support in primary school, to find the right secondary school and ensure that support is in place, and for places and support in further or higher education.

That creates huge pressures on the system, as we have seen across Northumberland and throughout the country. In councils across the country, SEND has been cited as contributing to the issuing of section 114 notices. Local authorities are struggling to balance their budgets, with reduced resilience in their finances for all sorts of reasons. Indeed, more is coming to light about the impact on council finances of the Budget of the former Prime Minister, who was in office for just over 40 days.

What has the Government’s response been? A review of SEND provision was announced in 2019 but delayed three times, and much of the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan will not come into effect until next year—six years after it was announced. The Minister may want to enlighten us as to whether any of that will be brought forward. It is desperately needed in all our communities.

Let me say a few words on child poverty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck highlighted alongside the cost of living crisis. The impact of child poverty on access to education in south-east Northumberland and across the country should concern us all. The challenges that children face at home do not stop at the school gates, and the extent of poverty in the north-east is appalling. The impact of that is demonstrated in the fact that some leave school without any qualifications at all.

Indeed, in the north-east we have seen the steepest rise in child poverty anywhere in the UK: almost 190,000 babies, children and young people now live below the poverty line. We hear about dedicated people across our education system going above and beyond every day for our children—for those who do not have books to read, pens to draw with or enough food in their bellies when they go to school. Of course, it is the Government’s role to break down those barriers, but their decisions often make the barriers higher. The previous Labour Government were laser-focused on tackling child poverty, and the next Labour Government will be too.

We also know about the challenges of persistent absence in our schools. Across the autumn and spring terms, more than one in five children were persistently absent from school—more than double the number just five years ago. The Education Secretary continues to claim that absence is her No. 1 priority, but in the north-east there has been a huge increase in the number of children missing days of education: between 2016 and 2022, there was a 169% increase in the number of children in Northumberland missing half their lessons, and the figures are starker yet in Sunderland, Newcastle and County Durham. It is just not good enough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck also raised the devastating impact of school funding cuts in his constituency. Official figures show that, thanks to the Conservatives, per-pupil spending in schools will recover to 2010 levels only in 2024-25. Those are 14 lost years. If the Minister is not familiar with those official figures, he may want to look at them, because that is the case. I have heard from school students in my constituency who have been left without a maths teacher for an entire year, as teachers are leaving the profession. Young people told me last week that, due to teacher shortages, English class sizes have doubled, because classes have been combined, and they take place in the school hall.

I want to say a word about access to post-16 education, because the decline of accessibility in education under the Conservatives is not just limited to schools. Under their watch, apprenticeship starts have plummeted by more than 200,000. In the north-east, starts have fallen by 45%, and in Wansbeck by almost 40%, since 2010. Schools and colleges seem to be an afterthought, but they will be at the heart of the next Labour Government’s mission to break down barriers to opportunity at every stage. We will recruit 6,500 more teachers across our schools, because the shortage of teachers is impacting the way schools are able to recruit, provide subjects to ensure a wide curriculum, and expand their offers. To create opportunity, we will recruit 1,000 new careers advisers and introduce two weeks’ work experience, which will be vital in bridging the gap between education and employment. That is so important for the quality of education that all young people receive.

The Labour party wants high and rising standards in all our schools and across all our communities, so that every child everywhere gets the chance to thrive and benefit from the opportunities that flow when they have access to the best education available. That must apply not just to some schools and some children, but to every child in every community.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his speech and for outlining the issues in his constituency, which are reflected in constituencies across the country. That is why the next Labour Government will be focused on breaking down barriers to opportunity in south-east Northumberland and across the country.