Sign up for email updates
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for adding me to your list of speakers. I begin by declaring my interests, as the husband of a higher-level teaching assistant currently working in a west midlands primary school, as the father of two young children who attend primary school in Dudley, and as somebody who, like many Members across the House, simply would not be here without the benefit of excellent state schools and the support of parents who placed a huge value on good education, despite—or perhaps because of—not having any formal qualifications themselves. It is hard to imagine any area of policy that is more vital to our society, our economy and our communities than education. Education lies at the heart of opportunity, it drives social mobility, it reinforces inclusion and it strengthens community cohesion.
Schools in Dudley face many challenges. The debate around school funding is often framed in terms of inner-city schools or remote, rural village schools, but schools in industrial towns face their own challenges: in educating many children, often with multiple indices of deprivation; in bringing together and educating children from many diverse backgrounds and cultures, often with first languages other than English; and in educating in a post-industrial age, with changing work patterns and a move away from children following their parents into traditional industries, with the impact that has on aspirations and educational expectations.
However, Dudley also has many excellent schools, and many outstanding teachers and other staff who are doing amazing work to give our children the best possible start in life, regardless of their background. Like other Members, I regularly visit schools in my constituency—I have now visited almost all of them three times in the four years since being elected. In the past two weeks I have seen the outstanding work being done on sports and physical education at Glynne Primary School, which I visited ahead of sports week to see how it is using the school sports premium to support greater participation and love for sports among children at all levels of physical activity. I have visited Dingle Community Primary School and St Mark’s Church of England Primary School in Pensnett—two schools that arguably had not been meeting their full potential or delivering what they perhaps should have been for local children—where new headteachers who have started in the past few months are already making a real and visible difference.
I have revisited Pens Meadow School, a special school where I formally opened a post-16 unit three years ago, to see the incredible work it is doing with children across the age range, many of whom have very complex special needs—the headteacher told me that, although it is a small school, typically it loses at least one pupil each year because of serious health conditions. Each of these schools and many others are delivering exceptional results against very tight budgetary constraints. The additional £1.3 billion being invested last year and this year, over and above what was set out in the 2015 public spending review, is important, as is the Government’s decision to meet the costs of schools’ increased employer’s contributions. That issue was raised by many school headteachers who were concerned that their existing budgets simply could not cope with this additional cost.
This debate is about the estimates, but it would clearly be impossible to separate that from the forthcoming spending review, which is the context in which they must be considered. Reassuringly, at all the meetings with Treasury Ministers that I have been to with Conservative colleagues, it has become clear that while we are very pleased to see the large increases in funding for the NHS announced last year as more money becomes available for this spending review, our schools, colleges and maintained nurseries must, alongside policing, be the priority for additional investment.
Nowhere is that money more desperately needed than in special schools. We see in these estimates increased funding for high needs, but going forward we need more. We need significantly more capacity for special educational needs, particularly in special schools. In Dudley, all our special schools are assessed as either good or outstanding. Unusually, parents, when given the choice, would rather their child went to a special school than be educated at one of the mainstream schools. However, too many pupils who need a place at a special school this autumn are being told that no places are available. Incredibly, 40 children who have been assessed as band E or higher—so with very, very severe learning disabilities or complex special needs—are without a place at a special school this September. This needs to be addressed, and that can only be done with significant capital funding to increase capacity.
Of course, education is not only about our schools. At either end of the state education spectrum, our colleges and state nurseries are disproportionately underfunded. I welcome the £24 million of additional supplementary funding that has been provided for state nurseries, which will make a big difference, but there is clearly a need to provide greater certainty further into the future. As the head teacher of Netherton Park Nursery School, the only maintained nursery school in Dudley, has written to me to say, unless this funding can be put on a sustainable footing going into the future, it will probably mean cuts to staffing and services or even the closure of her school. She writes:
“We do not know what places we can provide after Summer 2020. We are making decisions that could be detrimental to the future of our schools because we have no clear direction from the government about our funding.”
We need to provide that clear direction. It is essential that that is done in the weeks—at most, in the couple of months—that lie ahead, so that schools can plan for 2020-21, nurseries can provide people with the best start in life, and we can deliver the state educational system that all our communities deserve.