Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate. I particularly thank the members of the Education Committee, including the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) for co-sponsoring the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates). My hon. Friend is a brilliant Committee member and I appreciate all the work that she does.
To reassure the Whip on the Front Bench and, I am sure, the Minister, I should say that I fully support the estimates today. I will try to recommend things that I think can be improved and to argue that, although extra money has been raised, we need to ensure that we have value for money and that that money is spent well. I hope that the Government see my remarks in that spirit.
In last year’s autumn Budget, the Chancellor and the Education Secretary set out a vision of support for schools, skills and families. Of course, I agree with that—it is very important to focus on those three things—but I think that social justice needs to be added. I believe that the fundamental challenges now facing education are recovery from the covid-19 pandemic, addressing social injustices and early years intervention. I see that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom) is in her place; she is an expert on this issue in Parliament and does so much to ensure that the Government focus on early intervention.
It is also important for me, in opening this debate, to thank the teachers and support staff in schools and colleges in my constituency, who do so much to keep pupils learning and who have worked incredibly hard during the pandemic. I also thank the teachers and support staff around the country.
Clearly, the Government are making progress on skills and standards. Literacy rates are up and 1.9 million children are now in good or outstanding schools. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill and the lifetime skills guarantee, which passed through the House of Commons only a couple of weeks ago, could be very exciting, alongside proper money—£3 billion of extra funding. That should be welcome; that is real money.
As the Education Secretary and Ministers know, I think that more needs to be done to increase the amount of careers encounters that young people have at school. The Government are suggesting just three—so one a year in key years—but I suggest that there should be nine encounters altogether. That would not cost the Government any more in funding.
I have also suggested that additional funding should be made available to support adults to obtain a level 2 qualification as long as they can demonstrate their intention to progress to level 3, as per the lifelong learning entitlement. As I said in our debate on amendments to the skills Bill, many adults are not yet ready to do a level 3 apprenticeship. I want them to do so—it is wonderful that the Government are going to offer level 3 in the core subjects—but if they are not ready, it makes sense to give them the opportunity to start on a level 2 apprenticeship and use that for progression, as long as they progress to level 3 after that. I recognise that funds are difficult and that they are not readily available, but if we are going to bid for things in the next spending round, that should be a significant Government priority.
To go back to the careers encounters—what is known as the “Baker clause”—the Secretary of State has indicated to me that the Government want to do more on that. The Minister responsible for skills—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart)—has said the same. The Bill is being discussed in the Lords at the moment and no doubt this issue is being brought up by Lord Baker and many other peers. If we are serious about transforming adult education and building an apprenticeship and skills nation, we have to get more skills organisations, further education colleges, university technical schools, apprenticeships, apprentice organisations and apprentices into schools to encourage and set out the incredible career paths available, so that pupils know that there is an option not just of university, but of skills and apprenticeships.
As I said in the previous debate on this subject, when I go around the country and meet apprentices—meeting apprentices in all walks of life is one of the most enjoyable parts of my job—it grieves me that eight or nine times out of 10 they tell me that they have never been encouraged by their school to do an apprenticeship. My first speech in the House of Commons was on this subject in 2010, and that situation has not improved. I have even met degree apprentices who are doing incredible, high-quality apprenticeships—they do not have a loan and are going to get a good job at the end of their apprenticeship—who have offered to go back to their school to talk about their higher-level apprenticeship, but the school has turned them down. That has not just happened once—I have asked those degree apprentices about that—because, with their school, the whole culture is university, university, university when it should be skills, skills, skills.
I urge the Minister to introduce teaching degree apprenticeships. I do not understand why there has been resistance to them in the Department; we have policing degree apprentices, nursing degree apprentices and many public sector apprentices in other walks of life. We have apprentices in every other field, from engineering and law to plumbing and hairdressing. Why on earth cannot we have teaching degree apprentices? There are teaching assistant apprentices; there are also graduate teaching apprentices, but they have to go to university first. If we are to deal with the teacher recruitment crisis—a third of new teachers are leaving before five years in the profession—one way to encourage teachers and would-be teachers would be by introducing teaching degree apprentices. I would like to know the Government’s view on that point. I see the Minister nodding; I hope it is a sympathetic nod.
On adult education and skills, the Government are making significant progress, even with the things that I am calling for, and it is important to recognise that. I am excited about some of what is going on. The Government are talking about skills and apprenticeships in a way that they have not talked for a long time. Importantly, they have also reversed the spending cuts to further education.
Harlow College is, I would argue, one of the best colleges in England. As its Member of Parliament, I have visited it nearly 100 times since 2010; it is one of my favourite places to visit in my constituency because I see there how important and transformative further education is. Colleges are places of academic, vocational and social capital and are doing many of the things that the Government want and need in order to ensure we address the significant skills deficits in our country. However, if we do not get educational recovery from the covid pandemic right, and if we do not address social injustices in education, many of our young people will be at risk of not even reaching that stage in their academic career or reaping the benefits on offer.
I want to focus on the catch-up programme, for which I campaigned. From day one, I was passionately opposed to school closures. I have said time and again that they were a disaster for our children. I know that schools were open for vulnerable children and for the children of key workers, but in the first lockdown more than 90% of vulnerable children did not go to school. We know the damage that that has done to educational attainment, to mental health—referrals are up 60% and eating disorders among young girls are up 400%—and to pupils’ life chances. Tragically, it has also meant enormous safeguarding hazards, with children suffering domestic abuse at home and joining county lines gangs. Closing the schools was a mistake and we should never do it again. That is why, alongside other hon. Members, I campaigned for the catch-up programme early on and was very excited when it was announced. I thought it was incredibly important.
Let us look at the figures on the negative effects of school closures. The Education Policy Institute is to education what the Institute for Fiscal Studies is to economics: it is an incredibly respected organisation. Its chair told the Education Committee:
“In our most challenging communities for the most disadvantaged youngsters, they could be five, six, seven—in the worst-case scenarios eight—months behind in some of their learning.”
Ofsted says that some of the hardest-hit children returning to school after the first lockdown had even forgotten how to eat with a knife and fork and in some instances they had lost their progress.
Given the importance of catch-up, there are real questions about whether the catch-up programme, particularly the national tutoring programme, is fit for purpose. My view is that, under Randstad, it is just not working. The Education Committee has heard evidence from multiple sources about the problems besieging its delivery. In January, Schools Week reported that the national tutoring programme had reached just 15% of its overall target. Moreover, it reported that just 52,000 starts had been made through the tuition pillar of the NTP—just 10% of the 524,000 target.
I have met quite a few headteachers, not just in Harlow but around the country; the Committee has done roundtables and I have gone to schools. They have talked about the bureaucratic nightmare that they face while trying to use the catch-up programme and the national tutoring programme. There are also regional disparities: the NTP is reaching 96% of schools in the south-east, which is good news, but it is reaching only 59% in the north-east and the north-west, so there is a north-south divide yet again. Perhaps most alarmingly, the Department for Education’s annual report and accounts, published in December 2021, rated as critical and as very likely the possibility that the measures in the national tutoring programme to address lost learning would be insufficient.
Just last week, we heard that Randstad has removed the requirement to reach 65% of pupil premium children from the tutoring contracts with providers. What is the point of a targeted recovery programme if it does not reach those who are most in need, and if its targets are removed? Was the decision taken by Randstad or by the Department? I very much hope that the Minister will answer that question. Surely the whole point of the programme is that it is disadvantaged children, who learned the least during lockdown, who need most help. Every child suffered during the lockdown and we need catch-up programmes for all, but we must focus on the most vulnerable children. What is the point of that decision? I do not understand why the target of reaching 65% of pupil premium children has been removed. It is really important that the Minister explains what is going on.
The Government must also, as a priority, address the social injustices in our education system. The Department rightly points to higher standards; as I have mentioned, 1.9 million children are in good or outstanding schools, which is really good news. Until the pandemic, standards were going up, but we must also address social injustice in education.
Let me explain what I mean by social injustice. Just 5% of excluded pupils pass English and maths GCSE, just 7% of care leavers achieve a good pass in English and maths GCSE, and 18% of young people with special educational needs get a decent maths or English grade at the time of taking GCSEs. Attainment 8 scores for free school meal-eligible pupils varied across ethnic groups: for white British pupils, the average was just 31.8; for black Caribbean pupils, it was 34.1; Gypsy/Roma pupils scored 16.9; and Irish Travellers scored just 22.2.
Until a few years ago, we were making improvements to the attainment gap, but that progress is now stalling. Disadvantaged pupils are now 18 months of learning behind their better-off peers by the time they reach the age of 16. Progress had stalled before covid, so we cannot just blame it all on covid that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers is 18 months.
Children’s special educational needs is, understandably, a subject that I care about very deeply and that my Select Committee has done a lot of work on. Parents and families have waited nearly three years for the SEN review to be published, and in the meantime they are wading through a treacle of unkind bureaucracy as they try to get a level educational playing field for their children. The Committee has done a big report on special educational needs. It is wrong that children are not given a level playing field, it is wrong that so many families have to wait for education, health and care plans, it is wrong that the healthcare element of those plans is often non-existent, and it is wrong that there are not enough trained staff.
It is not always a question of money. I recognise that the Government put in an extra £800 million for special educational needs a year or so ago. It is also about money not being spent in the right way. We are wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on tribunal cases that the local authorities always lose. Because children with special educational needs are getting a poor service, their parents are going to tribunals, and I believe that more than 90% are winning their cases. That money could have been spent on the frontline. This is what I mean about money not being spent in the right way; the same applies to the catch-up programme.
I have mentioned that just 5% of excluded pupils pass GCSEs in English and maths. Every day, 40 pupils are excluded from our schools and they are not ending up in some wonderful alternative provision. As we know, there is a postcode lottery. Of course there are good alternative-provision schools, but often in the areas where the most pupils are excluded there is poor or non-existent alternative provision. I agree with Michael Wilshaw that we should try to minimise exclusions and that we should invest in local support units in schools—even if they have to be in a separate building—to train staff and to ensure that parents understand their rights.
Our Committee wrote a report entitled “Forgotten children: alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions”. The Government said that they welcomed the recommendations of the Timpson review, but what worries me is that very few of those recommendations have begun to be adopted. That is what I mean by addressing social injustice in education. I want disadvantaged pupils to benefit most from the catch-up programme. I want children with special educational needs to have a level playing field like everyone else, and to be able to get on to the ladder of opportunity. I also want excluded pupils—40 of them each day, as I keep repeating—to be given that chance in life, and not end up in prison. We know that 60% of prisoners have been excluded from school.
A further problem that the Government must confront is persistent absence, which has been highlighted by the Children’s Commissioner today. I call children who are persistently absent “the ghost children”. Even before the pandemic, the Centre for Social Justice reported that about 60,000 children were severely absent from school, and in the autumn of 2020 the total rose to more than 90,000. In her report, the Children’s Commissioner says that, according to a survey of local authorities, in the autumn term of 2021, more than 1.7 million pupils were persistently absent and 124,000 were severely absent. I pay huge tribute to her for highlighting that and for her work with the Government to try to get those children back to school. We are allowing this to happen: more than 100,000 children have mostly not returned to school since the schools were fully opened last March.
I urge the Minister to look at the recommendations from the Centre for Social Justice—I stress that this is my personal view; I am not speaking for my Committee at this point—and to use the underspend from the tutoring programme to fund an additional 2,000 attendance practitioners to work on the ground and return these children safely and securely to school. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, who is better at mathematics than I am, says that that is about 13 per county, which is not a lot.
What are we going to do? Are we really going to allow this? These children are potentially facing enormous safeguarding hazards, so we have to get them back to school. The Government have said that they will introduce a register of children who are not in school and are being home-educated. That must happen, and it must happen sooner rather than later. I have campaigned for it for a long time, along with members of my Committee, and we recently produced a report on the subject.
If the Minister does not agree with the recommendation from the Centre for Social Justice for an additional 2,000 attendance practitioners, I urge him at least to ensure that there is a proper programme of action that we all know about to return those “ghost children” to school. We need to know exactly what is happening. Six attendance advisers are simply not enough to deal with this problem. Education cannot just be for the majority. Academic capital and social capital must go hand in hand. The Government must prioritise levelling the playing field of education so that every child, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, has the chance to climb the ladder.
Given that my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire is present, I had better say something about early years provision. I suspect that she would be upset if I did not, because she is such an expert on the subject. The additional £500 million for family hubs that was announced in last year’s Budget is very welcome: it is an incredible amount of money. The Secretary of State visited my brilliant local family hub, which is run by Virgin Care and Essex County Council and does a great deal of work on parental engagement. As I have said, the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers is 18 months by the time the children reach the age of 16, but we also know that 40% of that attainment gap begins before children reach the age of five. Targeted support at this stage of life is therefore crucial. We also need to ensure that younger children from disadvantaged backgrounds are learning more at an early age.