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Education: Knowsley

Volume 618: debated on Tuesday 13 December 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered education in Knowsley.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan; I am sure we will be treated impartially and fairly. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) had hoped to be here, but she is currently recovering from an accident; she wanted me to make it clear that she would be here if she was fit.

Secondary education in Knowsley has received attention in this House and in the media recently, particularly as a result of the report by the ResPublica think-tank. Unless urgent action is taken, at the end of this academic year not a single education institution in Knowsley will offer A-level provision.

Let me say first a word about the ResPublica report, which was commissioned by Knowsley Council. The Prime Minister is known for weighing up matters before pronouncing on them, but I doubt that she had actually read the report before quoting from the press release about it at Prime Minister’s questions on 16 November; if she had, she would have noticed that the report that the council received in May did not mention grammar schools at all. In Knowsley, 39% of the secondary school population attends schools in neighbouring boroughs, which amounts to 3,164 school students and takes more than £17 million a year out of Knowsley’s education system. Unchecked, that is in danger of escalating to the point at which secondary education in the borough becomes unviable.

Let me be clear: parents rightly decide what is the best education for their children and my comments should in no way be taken as a criticism of people who choose to send their children to schools outside Knowsley—that is their right. However, the fact that they do so does challenge us to improve attainment levels, and education in Knowsley needs some radical changes. Frankly, the problems we face would not be resolved by the creation of a grammar school. Indeed, it would make matters worse for the overwhelming majority of school students. For example, the Education Policy Institute yesterday concluded that, overall, its analysis

“supported the conclusions reached by the OECD for school systems across the world – that there is no evidence that an increase in selection would have any positive impact on social mobility.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, said:

“The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as palpable tosh and nonsense”.

I think he put that firmly enough.

Together with my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for St Helens South and Whiston, I have been exploring possibilities for ensuring that A-level provision in the borough continues beyond 2017. We had a meeting with the schools Minister in June. There are potential solutions. At a recent meeting with the principal of Knowsley Community College about the proposed merger with St Helens College, I was pleased to hear that, if the merger goes ahead, they have some serious ideas about how to restore viable A-level provision in the borough.

Does my hon. Friend agree that for a borough such as Knowsley, which has a substantial population, the idea of having no academic A-level provision is embarrassing for all the schools and education institutes? It does not bode well for the future of the borough if our young people cannot get the education they need—of whatever variety—in the place that they live.

My hon. Friend puts that very well. I agree with her entirely and was just going on to add a word about the impact of the negative publicity and comment.

Before setting out some ideas that I believe will help improve secondary education, I want to note some positive things that are already happening. Hard-working heads and teachers are understandably demoralised at the continual denigration that they experience in the media and from the Government; parents and school students are understandably upset that their hard work and achievements are continually rubbished. Yet there is so much good work going on that never gets a mention.

Ten days ago, for example, I visited the Lord Derby Academy, part of the Dean Trust, and met head of school Vicky Gowan and assistant headteacher, Josette Arnold. On a tour of the school, it was obvious that they were doing a lot right. The sense of discipline and the rigorous approach to teaching were obvious and commendable, and promise to bring about big improvements. Much the same could be said for the other secondary schools in Knowsley. Similarly, I recently had the privilege of opening the new Northern Logistics Academy in Kirkby, a joint undertaking between St Helens College and Knowsley Community College. It provides logistics training for those seeking to work in that industry, which is a real growth industry in our city region.

Knowsley Council, having disowned the ResPublica report, has now established an education commission, chaired by Christine Gilbert, previously chief inspector of schools in England and head of Ofsted, and supported by other distinguished commissioners, which is charged with producing an improvement plan. That approach should be supported and I would ask the Minister to commit the Government to that. It is worth noting that the commission has the potential to signpost ways in which other deprived areas such as Knowsley can also make appropriate improvements.

Two developments which could lift achievement are the Shakespeare North and Bio-Inspire projects. Both implicitly offer opportunities to raise aspiration for school students in Knowsley, and I hope that the Government will continue to support both initiatives.

If we are to improve social mobility in areas such as Knowsley, the single most powerful engine for doing so is education. That being so, and given Knowsley’s high level of deprivation, it came as a surprise that Knowsley was not one of the six opportunity areas recently announced by the Government. I feel that the methodology used to identify those areas was flawed. Will the Minister undertake to review the methodology? Will she undertake to look at how Knowsley could be included in any further strategies to improve social mobility?

I want to make a suggestion about how educational attainment could be improved. Before doing so, I should say a word about how attainment is measured. Attainment 8 measures a student’s average grade across eight subjects, which are the same subjects that count for progress 8. Those new metrics are a significant change to education reporting; performance measurement is spread across a wider range of subjects and is no longer based solely on attainment, and there is an emphasis on progress.

Knowsley ranks bottom in the north-west, with an overall attainment 8 score of 39, compared with Liverpool on 47 and Trafford, which is top, on 57. It also has the worst progress 8 score in the north-west, with a score of minus 0.88 compared with Liverpool on minus 0.35. Those figures illustrate the scale of the challenge in Knowsley.

I expect that the commission established by Knowsley Council will look at how post-14 education could be radically reorganised. There is, in my view, a case to be made for creating a choice post-14, but not through a grammar school. Many students in their later years do not regard the sort of education on offer as suited to their future aspirations. Sir Michael Wilshaw has, on a number of occasions, called for a skills revolution in the UK, arguing that every multi-academy trust should run a vocational university technology college for youngsters aged 14 to 19. He said:

“We need to say to youngsters, ‘there are other paths than university’. If you’re going to make a success of Brexit, this should be the number one priority of government. Not grammar schools ... Otherwise we won’t have the skills. And the prospects for growth in the economy and productivity in the economy will suffer.”

Does my right hon. Friend accept that Halewood Academy closed its sixth form not because it no longer wished to teach A-levels but because, and I do not blame the head and the governors for their decision, financially it is obliged to balance its budget and it simply no longer had enough pupils wanting to go into the sixth form—for various reasons—to enable it financially to continue? As a consequence, there is now no academic A-level provision in the entire borough. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is commendable that Knowsley, which has no longer has any levers to provide education in its own borough and gets blamed when it goes wrong, has done what it can in establishing the commission? We hope that the Government will do what they can, in supporting that process, for all the young people and families in Knowsley.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. She is right to point out the limited scope of Knowsley Council, which is the local authority that has suffered the greatest cuts in the country while also being among those with the highest need. As I said earlier—it is an extension of my hon. Friend’s point—it is no longer viable to offer sixth-form provision in Knowsley, and if we do not do something urgently it will become unviable to offer any kind of secondary education at all. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I also agree with Sir Michael Wilshaw.

In many cases it would be more effective if the opportunity for vocational education were available post-14, offering pupils a programme of GCSEs, technical and professional qualifications and work experience. That is not to say that those who aspire to a more academic education should not have that choice but, rather, that it should be a choice and not the only option.

Time does not allow me to give a detailed account of how such a reorganisation would need to be carried out. Who would offer the more vocational post-14 option and could the existing secondary system be adapted to provide the more academic option? Those are examples of tough questions that need to be worked through. It is also essential that the vocational and technical education courses on offer are of a high quality and of equal status to the conventional curriculum.

I should perhaps declare an interest at this point. I was one of the generation who left secondary school at 15 but went to technical college. I studied engineering and then went on to do an engineering apprenticeship. Later, in my 20s, I did a degree. Those were options I had, and options I could take, and my worry is that such options are no longer available for young people, other than through the apprenticeship system. The problem with some apprenticeships is that they are too narrowly focused on the needs of the employer and, therefore, the young people who go through them do not acquire the transferable skills that might be needed when they are ready to move on to another employer. Post-14 opportunities in vocational education offer the prospect of their gaining those skills.

I am clear, as is Knowsley Council and my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood, that improvement is essential, and that a great deal of responsibility sits on the shoulders of the commissioners to come up with a way forward. Again, I ask the Minister to endorse that approach. Finally, it is important to point out that I have first-hand knowledge that young people in Knowsley are no less capable and no less ambitious than young people from better-off families. They deserve the same opportunities as young people from other parts of the country and from more prosperous areas. I hope that the Government will work with Knowsley Council, the commission, my hon. Friends the Members for Garston and Halewood and for St Helens South and Whiston, and me to ensure that that is exactly what happens.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) on securing this really important debate and on the obvious passion and understanding with which he speaks about the challenges in his constituency. I also thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for her support today, and I add my voice to those wishing the hon. Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) a speedy recovery.

I know that we all share the Government’s ambition to build a country that works for everyone, and that means providing a good school place for every child, one that caters to their individual talents and abilities and, indeed, their needs. Thanks to the incredible hard work of teachers and the action we have taken over the past six years, there are now more pupils in “good” or “outstanding” schools than in 2010. But if just one child in England is not able to access a good school, that is, of course, one too many, and that is a particular issue in Knowsley, where none of the six secondary schools is “good” or “outstanding”.

Provisional 2016 results for secondary schools in the borough show that pupils, on average, make half a grade less progress than other pupils nationally with the same prior attainment. Knowsley has been the lowest-performing local authority at secondary level for a number of years. I absolutely understand, therefore, why the right hon. Gentleman has raised this really important issue. We are working in partnership with Knowsley Council and other key stakeholders in the region to improve and extend the reach of high-performing schools and leaders, to provide the best possible outcomes for Knowsley’s young people, which is, of course, absolutely nothing less than they deserve.

Will the Minister put on the record today the fact that she and her Government will work with the local authority and local MPs to ensure that academic A-level provision is available from next September when Halewood Academy’s sixth form unfortunately ceases? We must not send a signal to all young people of an academic bent in Knowsley that they have to leave the borough to continue their education.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that issue. I understand that the regional schools commissioner is meeting Lord Nash and local MPs in early January to discuss options for A-level provision in the area. Those options are being explored by the Department for Education as we speak. I also know that the educational issue across the board in Knowsley is one on which people are working very collaboratively. We have a number of strong multi-academy trusts in the north-west that are now supporting schools within Knowsley; and the regional schools commissioner, in conjunction with the education commission, is bringing them together for a roundtable discussion next week to consider some of the challenges around school performance in the borough and other issues.

The leader of Knowsley Council, Andy Moorhead, has acknowledged that educational performance in the local authority needs to improve. He recognises that although over the years a number of actions have been put in place to address the issue, a different approach is now needed. That is why we very much welcome the launch of the Education Commission for Knowsley, which I hope will provide that new approach. The commission will work closely with the Department for Education and national and local leaders in education, as well as with business partners, to address the underlying causes of educational under-performance in the area. The commission will draw on the expertise and knowledge of its members who are key leaders in education at a local, regional and national level, including Christine Gilbert, the former chief inspector of schools, Vicky Beer, the regional schools commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire, and Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation.

I know that the commission will want to work closely with those who work in local schools; they are the real experts, who have clear views on how to get the much-needed improvement. The right hon. Member for Knowsley is right that we should be championing the dedication and commitment of the hard-working teaching professionals in our local schools, seeking to support, not denigrate, and seeking to encourage, not undermine. The commission will want to focus not only on immediate interventions to make visible improvements, but on long-term measures to ensure that all pupils achieve their full potential and leave school with confidence and ambition.

On A-level provision, we are working in partnership with Knowsley Council and other key stakeholders in the region, such as Learn and Lead and the Liverpool city region combined authority, to improve and extend the reach of high-performing schools and leaders to look for that solution and provide high-quality A-levels. I have already spoken about the meeting in January with the regional schools commissioner and Lord Nash.

To clear up the confusion that the right hon. Gentleman rightly raised about the ResPublica report, the version that was seen in May was a very early draft. The final report, “Achieving Educational Excellence in Knowsley”, did not come out until October. That is the one that acknowledges the transformative impact that grammar schools can have on the life chances of less well-off pupils. The Prime Minister has been clear that every child should be allowed to rise as far as their talents will take them, and that their background should not be a barrier. We want all pupils to have access to a good local school, which is why we are consulting on reforms to a number of different schools, including not only grammar schools, but independent and faith schools.

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I will make a tiny bit of progress first; he has asked me a number of questions and I do not want to leave anything out.

We want to tap into the expertise of all these types of schools and spread the knowledge across the system, so that every child has access to a good space. That is what the consultation is all about, and it is still open. We are considering how new grammar schools can open where parents want them, but with strict conditions to make sure that they improve the education of pupils in other parts of the system. We believe that all “good” and “outstanding” schools that have the capacity to expand should be able to do so to meet the demands of parents in their local area. Our proposals will also result in more universities and independent schools sponsoring academies and establishing free schools. There are positive examples of that happening in Merseyside, where, for example, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts has set up a free school.

The Government’s reforms have increased autonomy in the education system, placing a relentless focus on improving standards and tackling underperformance and encouraging innovative partnerships to improve existing schools and create new ones. The right hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to raise the issue of post-14 technical education—he is one of the great alumni of that sort of system. Fourteen to sixteen-year-olds are able to take up high-quality, technical applied qualifications alongside their GCSEs, enabling students to gain valuable experience in a range of subjects not normally covered by GCSEs and develop practical and technical skills. Up to three technical awards can count in headline performance measures.

I will in a moment, when I get to the end of this bit; the right hon. Gentleman was very keen to talk about technical education and I do not want to miss anything out. As he will be aware, 48 university technical colleges are currently open. A further seven are in development and plan to open in 2017 and beyond, and along with the 48 open UTCs, they will create opportunities for more than 35,000 young people to train as the engineers and scientists of the future.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I do not want to make a big issue of the Prime Minister’s comments at Prime Minister’s questions; I just want to set the record straight. Knowsley Council received the report that it commissioned from ResPublica in May, and that did not include any reference, in any shape or form, to the need for a grammar school in the borough. As I understand it—I spoke to the local authority at some length yesterday—the only reference to a grammar school was in a press release, which I assume the Prime Minister was quoting from. It was not in the body of the report that the council received.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point, which we will look into. My understanding is that the very early draft in May did not refer to grammar schools, but that the final report, which came out in October, did. However, I will pass his comments back to the Department.

Is the Minister saying that a new grammar school in Knowsley is the solution that the Government might come up with?

No, what I am saying is that it is all about choice, flexibility, keeping our options open and listening to people’s views. That is what the consultation is all about. It is not about writing anything off, because we do not want to write off our children’s future. We want to consider any changes that will bring about the best possible social mobility for all those in our schools. We want every child to be able to fulfil their potential.

I will briefly talk about the opportunity areas for social mobility, as the right hon. Member for Knowsley was concerned about that issue. I understand his frustration that Knowsley was not included in that, because it is the lowest-performing authority at secondary level. However, it is not the weakest in the social mobility index, so it is not currently considered an opportunity area. Opportunity areas have been selected as social mobility “cold spots”, where we will trial new ways of addressing entrenched problems. However, we will use the learning from those areas to spread excellence to other areas, which will, of course, include areas such as Knowsley, where we want outcomes in schools to improve. We also want to go beyond schools and make sure that all programmes, from early years to accessing employment, help to break the link between a person’s background and what they achieve as adults. That is fundamentally very important.

I am very pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has raised these issues today. He is absolutely right that we must ensure that this country works for everyone, not just the privileged few. It is so essential to create a socially just and socially mobile society, in partnership with fantastic teachers, strong schools and college leaders. We must all work together to ensure that the Government’s education reforms will be successful in raising educational standards for all.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.