Monday 17th July 2023

(7 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Mark. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on an excellent speech, and I thank the people who signed the petition. Some 1,000 or more in Cumbria signed the petition, which might reflect the fact that we are a community of many schools, not least because of the rural nature of much of Cumbria, which means that many of those schools are very small. In my visits around Westmorland in recent weeks and months, I have been to primary schools with as many as 450 children, as few as 13 and all points in between. The value of teaching assistants in each of those schools—a primary school, a high school and a special educational needs school—is immense, and it is important that we recognise that.

One thing I hope we can achieve in this debate—I hope that we can achieve much more—is to put on record the collective gratitude of Members on both sides of the House to people who choose to enter this profession. The value of teaching assistants is immense. They assist—as one might expect from the title of the profession—teachers to teach. If a teacher is dealing with, say, 30 children of a range of abilities, teaching assistants allow them to focus on the delivery of the subject matter, and teaching assistants get alongside those children, whether they are ahead, behind or in the middle of the pack. As we have heard, that is of enormous and transformational value in terms of children’s ability to succeed later in life. Particularly at primary school level, teaching assistants help children to get a love of learning and understand how to learn independently, at least to some small degree, so they can go on to learn with a greater level of maturity once they get to higher education.

Teaching assistants’ qualities are immense, their value is immense and they are not well paid, as we have heard. The hon. Member for Gower read out a number of powerful statistics, and I hope that people pay attention to them. Perhaps the most powerful is that although the median or average wage of a teaching assistant is around £19,000 a year, many of them are term time only—some of them by their own choice and some of them because of the school’s budgetary constraints—which means that their average income is just over £14,000.

That will have an ever bigger impact in the more expensive places to stay, so I want to make a particular case for the Minister to bear in mind how things are for us in Westmorland and Furness. In our community, the average house price is more than 12 and a half times the average household income. In the last three years, the long-term private rented sector has almost evaporated into Airbnb. Along with the steady rise of second home ownership, which has gobbled up the housing market in much of the lakes and the dales, that means that there is basically no housing that is even remotely affordable or available for people on anything other than a staggering salary.

That affects not just teaching assistants but people working in care, hospitality and tourism, and every other profession. We have a massive workforce crisis, which is seen very clearly, school by school, when it comes to teaching assistants. Westmorland and Furness Council receives no provision, and neither do other councils similar to ours, to acknowledge the vast gap between average wages and average house prices and rental prices. That means that we are starved of a workforce, so we are very grateful for every person who chooses to work in the profession.

We have also heard, rightly, about the issue of career progression. If someone does not feel that there is a way through their profession into a higher level of qualification —potentially even becoming a qualified teacher at some point—their morale and the ability to retain those people in the profession will be affected. We see that school by school and, I am sure, constituency by constituency: people who have great qualities and the ability to add even more value to their communities are being stymied, reaching a glass ceiling and therefore leaving the profession altogether.

We of course see people leaving education because of salaries. In particular, in my community that is because there is great pressure on our workforce for a variety of reasons—I have mentioned housing, but there are others. Nearly two thirds of the hospitality and tourism businesses in my patch are operating below capacity, because they do not have enough staff. That means that those who have the wherewithal can therefore increase their terms and conditions and salaries—that is great—but teaching assistants, care workers and others are the pool of labour that is being redistributed into the private sector away from teaching assistant and care assistant roles, and we are suffering as a consequence.

I have been to lots of schools recently. In the past few weeks, I have been to many of the schools in Kendal, Brough, Tebay, Kirkby Stephen, Appleby, Great Asby, Clifton, Witherslack, Shap, Windermere, Crosby Ravensworth, Kirby Lonsdale and Crosthwaite. The No. 1 issue that they raise—and I think that this will be obvious to most Members present—is that of salary, pay and where that money comes from. There has been no central or local authority funding to address rising energy costs. Teachers’ pay awards are overdue and insufficient, yet schools have not been funded to pay for them, either. The current pay offer looks like 6.5% but more than half of that will have to come from within school budgets. They cannot find the money. What can schools do? They cannot put prices up or increase their commercial revenue. They will, of course, pay the teachers their pay award, but that will mean having to cut other staff—which very often means teaching assistants. I am afraid that it looks like schools are having to pit teachers’ pay awards against having teaching assistants. These folk, who are on low wages but do immense work, are being let go. I cannot think of a single school in my part of Cumbria that is not at least contemplating doing that.

I ask the Minister to think very carefully about the impact on children of having demoralised teaching assistants who are either taking second and third jobs just to keep themselves going or, more likely, leaving the profession altogether. What does that mean for the quality of education? What does it mean for the stress levels of the teachers left behind to deal with large classes without any help whatsoever? What does it mean for children with special educational needs? We know how long it takes these days to get an education, health and care plan. Schools and teaching assistants have to carry the load before an EHCP is provided, and even when one is provided it is the schools that have to come up with the first £6,000 of the cost. Teaching assistants spend time with those children with the greatest level of need. If we want them to thrive, we need to invest in them, and that means paying people enough to keep them in their profession for a long time.

In conclusion, if the Minister is going to take this issue seriously and do more than pay lip service to how much we value teaching assistants, he will ensure that schools are adequately funded to provide the pay rises that they are being asked to make. That will enable them to keep their current staff and pay them properly. The huge cost of living disparities in authorities such as mine mean that many people, including teaching assistants, are being lost to the workforce. The Minister should therefore also arrange a special alteration to the formula for Westmorland and Furness so that our schools can pay teaching assistants adequately and they can afford a place to live. Finally, as has been said by Members on both sides of the House, we ought to be retaining teaching assistants by valuing them, creating a career structure and ensuring that the options on the table include the ability to progress directly into the training profession. In the end, we must value our teaching assistants not just through what we say but through what we do.