Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered support for the education of children from low-income families.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I rise to speak on this issue as a parent and, like all of us here today, as someone who wants the best for our schoolchildren, and to ensure that they are not limited by their background or their parents’ income.
I stand in awe of the incredible work teachers, school staff, parents and early years practitioners have put in over the past 15 months to ensure that children in school do not miss out. They have adapted to social distancing measures in classrooms, regular testing and isolation periods, all while ensuring that children feel safe and can learn. Sadly, we have not seen the same commitment from the Government.
In common with almost all other Government Departments in their response to the pandemic, there has been a catalogue of Conservative failures in education, including school closures without an effective plan for distance learning; a promise to primary schools that they would return before the summer holidays last year, then backtracking on that promise; and preventing families from accessing food vouchers during school holidays, only to do a screeching U-turn after outrage and condemnation from across our nation. How could we forget the exams fiasco for both A-level and GCSE students, leaving thousands distressed about their future? In addition, the Conservatives presided over legal action to force schools to stay open, only to shut them weeks later; in their catch-up plan, they provided less than £1 per day when children were out of school; and they ignored the advice from the expert adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, to allow children to properly recover from the pandemic, forcing him, unfortunately, to resign. As one Slough headteacher, commenting on Government behaviour on education, noted:
“Communication is last minute, it’s ill thought-out and it hasn’t included our voice in the whole process.”
Schools have had to cope with all that in the space of just over a year. It would be almost comical if the impact of this incompetence was not on our children’s futures. Each delayed or poor decision has resulted in worse outcomes for a generation of schoolchildren who have been left to suffer. The impact of these decisions is real, and the consequences are even more severe for those who were already disadvantaged and come from low-income families.
The most recent figures show that since October 2020 the number of pupils eligible for free school meals has increased by over 100,000. At the same time, support and funding for such pupils has fallen, with the Government moving eligibility for pupil premium support back from January to October. Schools, which have already been left bruised by cuts to their resources since 2010, therefore miss out on additional funding for any child who began claiming free school meals after 1 October 2020, leaving them short-changed to the tune of millions.
As the Lawrence report proved last year, children on free school meals are already at an economic and educational disadvantage. That factor has a real and profound impact on pupil attainment across all ethnicities. In 2019, just 25% of pupils who had been eligible for free school meals, or who had been in care or adopted from care, received grades 9 to 5 in GCSE English and maths, compared with 50% of other pupils. After brutal cuts and the cynical moving of deadlines, is it any surprise that disadvantaged schoolchildren are struggling?
One Slough parent who lost their job and was reliant on food vouchers expressed their turmoil to me, saying:
“My daughter has been left out by the very government that we rely on to keep us and our loved ones safe.”
Instead of investing to ensure that families in Slough have adequate support to ensure that their children are clothed, fed, and can attend school, the Government have continued to cut the support on which they rely so heavily. The move from legacy benefits to universal credit means that just half of the children in the poorest fifth of our population are able to get free school meals. Sadly, this Government seem intent on savings, rather than on investing the potential of future generations.
While that neglect of our poorest families continues, the gap between them and their peers widens. In my constituency of Slough, the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their classmates is 2.4 months for early years, almost six months in primary schools, and in our secondary schools it has reached more than 11 months. Those tragic facts were set in motion way before the onset of the pandemic, and we have yet to see the long-term impact that the pandemic may have on our children. Researchers from the Education Policy Institute have identified that the increasing proportion of disadvantaged children who are in persistent poverty has contributed to the lack of progress in narrowing the learning gap.
Ensuring that parents get the proper financial support that they deserve is essential to children’s attainment and achievements in later life. A Slough mother contacted me recently to attest to that. She was living on just £120 a month and was unable to properly feed or clothe her children. She was desperate for empathy from the Government and adequate support to better the lives of her family. If children experience difficulties at home, they are in no position to be ready to learn.
We must give children the resources to thrive, not leave them to struggle through a pandemic, like the thousands who were unable to get the devices that they needed to access their schooling when the Government’s laptop allocation promise was slashed by 80%. Back in January, Labour’s calls to get every child online fell on deaf ears. As I mentioned earlier, 100,000 pupils have not returned to school full-time following schools reopening. All along, there has been no plan for the education of the most vulnerable in our society.
I am a great believer in the power of education, and in Slough we have some of the best schools in the country. Without support from the Government in what has undoubtedly been the most difficult time for education and disadvantaged families in recent years, the opportunities that a good education can deliver are being missed. We should be realistic about the dire and lasting impact that continued Government inaction will have. A Royal Society report suggests that the impact of school closures on 13 cohorts of students has the potential to affect a quarter of the entire workforce for the next 50 years, and disadvantaged pupils are particularly at risk of falling into poverty.
It is possible to turn the tide with a properly funded catch-up plan, not one that will reach just 8% of pupils, less than half of whom are on free school meals. We need action proportionate to the serious times ahead to ensure that children from low-income families do not miss out even more and to improve the outcomes of future generations, ensuring that they are better off than their predecessors and that they can access and achieve their ambitions, not be held back. The Government will never improve the prospects of our nation by leaving disadvantaged children behind