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Schools: Nottingham

Volume 627: debated on Wednesday 12 July 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for Nottingham schools.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Today’s motion is very deliberate; I want to talk about the support that Nottingham schools need, not just the funding they receive. Too often Ministers have talked our city down. We must be frank about the challenges we face in raising educational attainment, especially at key stage 4, but we must also recognise progress, innovation and success. Failing to do so is demoralising and counterproductive.

I hope the Minister will welcome the fact that 83% of children in Nottingham are now taught in good and outstanding schools, up from 61% just three years ago. Some 22% of our schools are now rated outstanding—that is the second highest local authority level in the east midlands, and above the national average. I hope he will also welcome the improvement in key stage 2 results. The progress made by children in Nottingham’s primary schools last year matched the national average in reading and outstripped national averages in writing and maths. Children come to those primaries with low levels of school readiness and low speech and communication levels. Many require additional language support and pupil mobility is very high.

Nottingham is rightly proud of its “Maths Mastery” programme, developed in collaboration with the two regional maths hubs. Drawing on learning from Singapore and other leading international practice, Nottingham is developing a maths teaching culture that is already delivering enhanced outcomes, with the approach now being rolled out from the early years through to KS4.

The city’s five special schools are all rated good or outstanding, and Oak Field School is recognised internationally as a model of excellence in working with children and young people with profound and multiple disabilities. We also have an outstanding hospital school at the Queen’s Medical Centre.

More than 8,000 Nottingham children are learning a musical instrument in school, up an incredible 1,652% in the past 12 years. In 78% of Nottingham primary schools, every child is learning an instrument, compared with a figure of 58% nationally. Some 48% of pupils continue with instrumental teaching after the first year, compared with 27% nationally. There has been a 385% increase in the numbers of pupils gaining a nationally recognised music qualification in the past three years alone.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend has secured this debate. She will know my constituent, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who last year won the BBC young musician of the year contest, as he went to Trinity School, a secondary school in her constituency. He is a great example of the sort of specialism and expertise that young people in our city can achieve. My concern more broadly is that all those specialisms may be sacrificed if the speculated cuts to the funding formula and the changes hit Nottingham schools particularly hard. Can my hon. Friend say a word about why some of those specialist skills among the teaching staff and beyond are so important in our city?

Sheku Kanneh-Mason is indeed an acclaimed cellist, and Trinity School and all of us are rightly very proud of him. I will say more about the importance of music and other enrichment activities and why they are under threat.

Students from across the city not only enjoy playing or singing in an ensemble, but are equipping themselves with perseverance, self-belief and a lifelong love of music. It is particularly pleasing to note that Nottingham is in the top quintile for those on pupil premium learning a musical instrument. However, while the Nottingham Music Hub is always exploring new ways to generate income, I am concerned that the local authority and individual schools may find it more difficult to fund the service in the future.

Schools provide other opportunities. The number of children able to swim 25 metres at the end of key stage 2 has more than doubled to 45% in the past four years. Some 6,000 primary and 5,300 secondary students are involved in competitive school games and sports.

I began the debate by saying that I wanted the Minister to recognise that there is much to be proud of in Nottingham schools, but I would be failing my constituents if I did not also acknowledge that we need to do much better in ensuring that every child leaves school with the skills and knowledge they need to lead successful adult lives. Formal qualifications are an important measure, but they are not the only one. I hope the Minister will recognise that good schools also ensure that students are resilient, kind, reflective, motivated, confident, and have respect for themselves and others. Character development is vital and should be valued.

Many Nottingham families live in poverty and some have low aspirations. Too many live in inadequate or overcrowded housing and have very low incomes and poor health, both mental and physical. Some children face additional challenges because English is not their first language, and we know that white working-class children, especially boys, are often the hardest to reach. Even where children are making good progress at primary school and are achieving at the end of year 6, that is too often not maintained to GCSE level. We clearly need to improve the transition from primary to secondary education, but there is concern that the Government’s emphasis on a limited range of academic subjects up to age 16 is off-putting to those pupils, including the academically able, who would be enthused by a more vocational route. That view is expressed not only by teachers and heads, but by the former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker, who has championed high-quality technical education for more than two decades.

Nottingham is working hard to provide sufficient primary school places by expanding existing good schools. We know that the bulge in pupil numbers will mean a shortfall in secondary school places if action is not taken now. A reliance on the emergence of new free schools is not enough. Nottingham needs extra capital resources to expand existing schools or to open new ones. The high level of in-year admissions is a further challenge, particularly for our maintained schools. The current system is not transparent and there is concern that some academies are reluctant to admit pupils with additional needs, placing some of the most vulnerable children at risk of missing time in school. The White Paper, “Educational Excellence Everywhere”, called for local authorities to have a co-ordinating role in dealing with such admissions. Will the Minister say whether he will be returning to that proposal?

A further concern is the high level of permanent exclusions at key stages 3 and 4. Last year, 108 city children were permanently excluded, and this year the number is set to be even higher. It is deeply concerning that a high proportion of those students have special educational needs. The pupil referral unit now has more than 300 students on its books, and those young people are placed with a number of alternative providers across the city, but the cost is very high and outcomes are poor. Funding for such provision falls on the local authority and diverts resources away from other high-needs children. What action will the Government take to incentivise schools to tackle poor behaviour, rather than using exclusion too widely to shift responsibility?

As the Minister is well aware, school funding—already a hot topic—rightly became the focus of debate during the general election. I have listened carefully to the Minister’s responses since then, and I do not believe he has adequately addressed my voters’ concerns. He says that the schools budget has been protected in real terms since 2010, but he knows that pupil numbers are rising. The cake may be bigger, but it has to be shared between more people. Will he come clean and admit that the increase in the budget has not been sufficient to protect per pupil funding in real terms? He knows that all schools face higher national insurance contributions, pension contributions, unfunded national pay rises and now the apprenticeship levy.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that spending per pupil would fall in real terms by 8% and the National Audit Office confirmed that,

“funding per pupil will, on average, rise only from £5,447 in 2015-16 to £5,519 in 2019-20, a real-terms reduction once inflation is taken into account.”

The Minister says he will support schools to offset these pressures, but I can find little evidence of such support in delivering the savings required. One head at a primary academy told me:

“We have already renegotiated every single contract both as one school and as part of a Multi-Academy Trust. We have lost and not replaced three teaching assistants, a sports coach, a music teacher and an art teacher. Our pupils walk to their Swimming lessons for 12 sessions rather than travelling by bus for 36. If a teacher is ill, we don’t use qualified teachers to stand in front of classes until day four of their absence because insurance for teacher absence that starts after the third day is considerably cheaper than insurance that starts on the first day.”

It really is that bleak. Schools in Nottingham are making cuts that have a direct and damaging impact on the quality of education.

The head of an outstanding primary school told me that they had cut the number of teaching assistants, teachers and learning mentors, increasing pressure on remaining staff and providing less support for children with additional needs. As he said:

“All of this is also taking place within the context of an increase in the numbers of families who need extra support, due to benefit changes, higher levels of domestic violence, more families being evicted...and the rise of the number of families seeking support from food banks.”

Secondary schools paint a similar picture: fewer teachers, larger classes, less subject choice, and cuts to after-school activities.

I note that the Minister has sometimes resorted to blaming his Government’s choices on the budget deficit in 2010. That is simply not good enough. His party has been in power for seven years. They promised that as a result of their austerity plans, the deficit would be eliminated by 2015. Any shred of economic credibility is long gone and their decision to spend £1 billion on buying a parliamentary majority underlines that point.

A head told me what inadequate funding means to his school: “Am I able to replace the 18 failing interactive whiteboards in our classrooms? No. Am I able to purchase library books to inspire a love for reading in the next generation? No. Can the disabled child’s carer have overtime to accompany her for a full day’s educational visit? Of course, yes. As a result of that carer’s overtime, can the five-year-olds have another set of glue sticks for the summer term? No.” He said:

“As the Headteacher I am not bemoaning the lack of capacity for investing in education at a level that will make a significant difference to the life chances of my pupils; I am genuinely struggling to see how I can squeeze basic school provisions out of the funding available.”

On top of the existing level of real terms cuts we also face the prospect of a new national funding formula that will take money away from every single school in my constituency. I welcome the Minister’s promise that,

“there will be no cut in per pupil funding as a consequence of moving to the national fair funding formula”,

but, as he knows, protecting a budget in cash terms is no protection at all. With rising inflation and increasing demands—for example, the introduction of much needed mental health support—school leaders simply feel unable to deliver what is asked of them. I could fill hours with the testimony of dedicated school staff who feel that the Government are not giving them the support they need. Adequate funding, especially for schools serving areas of high deprivation, is essential. Schools cannot keep doing more with less. They are at breaking point.

I hope the Minister will not simply dismiss my concerns and those of my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who will speak shortly. I want the Minister to commit to, at the very least, maintaining school funding in real terms for Nottingham schools. If he cannot, I will not stop asking. I also want him to come and see why I am asking.

Last Friday I visited the city schools exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary. The gallery’s head of learning told me,

“what we are hearing from teachers again and again is that coming to a gallery, working with artists, really helps their children think differently, think creatively, question, be critical and reflective...particularly it builds confidence in those children who are told too often they are wrong, to keep quiet and not question. The gallery offers those children a place to thrive.”

While I was there, students from Southwold Primary enjoyed telling me about their work. Southwold is a good school, but it serves one of the most disadvantaged parts of my constituency: 46.1% of pupils have English as an additional language and 47.6% are eligible for free school meals. I have seen for myself the creative ways in which the school works to give their children a great start in life.

The head said,

“we are giving our city children the experiences that more affluent counterparts can afford. Our pupils find it hard to make connections due to limited experiences and we need to provide these experiences so they can better access the curriculum and understand contexts for learning.”

She explained that in last year’s SATs reading test, one text was about a safari park; some children did not know what a safari park was, let alone visited one. As she says:

“All this needs funding and at the moment we are trying to do it on a shoestring.”

Nottingham’s schools need our support. They need the resources to do their vital job of investing in the next generation. I hope the Minister will come and see our schools for himself and commit to supporting them, enabling every Nottingham child to thrive.

Unusually, and for good constituency reasons, I call the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for no more than four or five minutes.

I will start by declaring an interest as chair of governors at Rosslyn Park Primary School. I shall not impose on the Minister’s time for more than four or five minutes; I am enormously grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to speak. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing the debate. She, like me, made school cuts the focus of her terrific re-election campaign, and she and I vowed to use all the devices of this place to raise the issue loudly and assertively. We have both spent a lot of time meeting parents at school gates; it is impossible to overstate the strength of feeling on this topic.

Getting a good start in life in order to thrive should be something we aspire to for every child. Regrettably, in my constituency too often that is not the case. That is both the cause of and caused by cyclical poverty in my community. That was the theme of my maiden speech, and it will be the golden thread running through all my work in this place. It is critical that our schools are sufficiently supported to make sure we can close the gap, or too many of our children will start behind and simply never catch up. That is a shame. It is not a fact of life and people rightly look to this place and to the Government in the expectation that there will be action to tackle it. It explains the dismay at the idea that schools in Nottingham might receive real terms budget cuts. Left wing or right wing, whatever their politics, people do not see that as a sensible idea. It is a false economy for the state and will lead to greater dependence in the future. None of us will win. I can understand that there may be historic inequities that need to be ironed out, but I urge Ministers to think creatively and to level up, or they will take from those with the least in order to give it often to those with the least need. I defy anybody to join me at the school gates in Bilborough and explain that to parents.

School improvement is an imprecise art. As I declared, I am the chair of governors at one of Nottingham’s biggest primary schools. We have been on a journey with Ofsted and have got to the point where we are very excited and cannot wait for Ofsted to come and see how well we are doing. Our results last week put us virtually at the national average for attainment and above that for progress. In future years I have no doubt we will go even further. That is all built on current levels of investment and on having outstanding leadership that works outside the classroom, meaning that each leader can make half a dozen or more staff better, leading to better teaching on a daily basis in each class. It means never needing supply and always delivering quality, but that is at risk from real-terms school cuts—nearly £2 million-worth across the constituency.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South mentioned, there are only so many physical budgets that the cuts can come from. In the end, they will come from staff. The public will watch us discuss cuts and talk about real terms and cash terms. That is a political argument for now, but it will mean naught in future. When P45s go out to teachers and teaching assistants, that is what parents will understand and they will not see that as a good thing. It is not helpful for Nottingham and we ask Ministers to revisit those plans and come up with something that works.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) on securing this important debate, and I congratulate her and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) on their contributions to it. I acknowledge the successes in school improvement in Nottingham that the hon. Lady highlighted. If we look at the data, we see that there have clearly been improvements in phonics results, EBacc results and in key stage 2 results.

The Government want to ensure that every pupil receives a world-class education, regardless of their background or where they live. We have made significant progress. England outperformed the rest of the United Kingdom in the OECD’s most recent PISA science assessments. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more affluent peers has shrunk by 7% at key stage 4 and by 9.3% at key stage 2 since 2011. There are now 1.8 million more children in schools that are rated good or outstanding than there were in 2010. In Nottingham, that translates into nearly 8,000 more children in good or outstanding schools than in 2010.

However, the pace of improvement in some parts of the country, including Nottingham, is still not good enough. Only 80% of schools in Nottingham are rated as good or outstanding, compared with the national position of 89%. There is still underperformance in some schools in Nottingham compared with the rest of the country.

For example, in 2016, 75% of Nottingham’s pupils reached the expected standard in phonics, compared with 81% nationally and 87% in Newham—one of the most deprived parts of the country—but I am pleased that the phonics results in Nottingham have increased year on year, with 48% passing that check in 2012. In Nottingham, 50% of primary school children in key stage 2 achieved the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics, compared with 53% nationally and 62% in Newham. At key stage 4, 16.8% of secondary school pupils in Nottingham achieved the EBacc combination of GCSEs, compared with 24.7% nationally and 31% in Newham.

I remain as concerned about school standards in Nottingham as I was when I met the directors of education for Nottingham City Council and the regional schools commissioner in November 2015 to discuss how they intended to raise standards. Our ambition is for a school system that prevents underperformance, helps all schools to improve and extends the reach of high-performing schools and headteachers. That is the key to delivering more high-quality school places across the country and accelerating the pace of improvements throughout the country, including in Nottingham.

To succeed in that, we have targeted investment in the school system to support those schools most in need, and to support the development of teachers and school leaders, particularly in the most challenging parts of the country. For example, we have established a new fund, the strategic school improvement fund, which provides £280 million over two years to target resources at those schools most in need of support. That will help those schools that are struggling to improve to drive up standards and improve pupil attainment. Working at a local level, key partners will bring together local intelligence to help inform applications and ensure that funds are directed at identified improvement priorities that meet local needs.

Working with schools at a local level is also an important part of our strategy to deliver more good and outstanding school places. Our eight regional schools commissioners are pivotal to driving up standards locally, brokering schools into strong multi-academy trusts, and challenging and supporting those trusts to raise standards where they are not performing effectively.

Multi-academy trusts play a key role in harnessing the support of our system leaders and are helping to turn around some of the more challenging schools right across the country. Bluecoat Beechdale Academy, which serves a deprived community in the Bilborough part of Nottingham, was judged good by Ofsted in February this year. Ofsted noted that pupil progress is now improving rapidly. Djanogly Strelley Academy in Nottingham was also judged good by Ofsted in February this year, which is a significant turnaround from 2013, when its predecessor school was judged inadequate.

When we are not satisfied that the progress an academy is making is good enough, we will take decisive action, including re-brokering it to a new sponsor.

One of the things that causes me great concern is the time that it can take to re-broker a school and the difficulties that then creates when a new academy comes into place. That was certainly the experience at Victoria Primary School. It has now been re-brokered, and I am very supportive of the headteacher and the multi-academy trust, but the truth is that for a long time—I discussed this with the previous regional schools commissioner—that school was left without good leadership. That is not good enough. I know that in some cases there is a struggle to find academy chains to take on schools in order for them to make that sort of progress.

I share the hon. Lady’s impatience. We need to find more good school sponsors to take on underperforming schools. It is an iterative process; we are seeing more and more academy chains being formed and more stand-alone academies taking on underperforming schools and helping them to improve. For example, Riverside Primary School in Nottingham was not performing well. In 2016, it was transferred to the NOVA academy trust, which is a strong sponsor operating in the city. We need more strong sponsors in Nottingham and throughout the country to drive up standards. We are seeing that the system of using leaders in the education system—a school-led system—is driving up standards. It has resulted in 1.8 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools than there were seven years ago.

The local examples I have cited demonstrate that the combined effects of targeted funding to the system to drive school improvement and action taken at a local level are continuing to deliver more good and outstanding places for children. However, underpinning all the support we are putting in to the system to help drive school improvement is the need to ensure that we have fair distribution of funding to schools, which properly reflects need.

I listened to the contributions from the hon. Members for Nottingham South and for Nottingham North, as well as the intervention from the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie), on school funding. I have spent a lot of time in the past few months, during the election and during the extensive consultation, meeting schoolteachers, parents and governors from across the country. From those conversations, I have never been more convinced that our current funding system is broken.

The data that we use to allocate funding to local authorities are more than a decade out of date. For example, over that period the free school meals rate has almost halved in Southwark and more than doubled in Dorset, but the funding each local authority receives has not responded to that change. It is not right that local authorities with similar needs and characteristics receive very different levels of funding from central Government. That unfairness is exacerbated at individual school level, because local authorities make very different decisions in designing their local formulae. For example, a school in Barnsley would have 50% more funding if there were no other change to its circumstances but that it was situated in Hackney instead. The system by which we distribute money to schools is unfair and anachronistic.

That is why the Government have gone further than previous Governments in reforming school funding. Our manifesto committed to making funding fairer and we will do that by introducing a single national funding formula, so that all schools in England are funded on a consistent and transparent basis that properly reflects needs. In March 2016 we launched our first stage of consultation on the formula. We asked for views on the principles that should underpin it and its overall design. The principles included using robust data to ensure that funding is matched to pupil characteristics, such as deprivation, and the importance of transparency in the formula. More than 6,000 people responded and there was widespread support for our proposals.

In December last year we launched the second stage of our consultation on the detailed design of the formula. As part of that consultation, and to ensure maximum transparency, we published detailed illustrative impact data for all schools and local authorities, which enabled us to hold a truly national debate for more than three months. The Government response will address all the issues and concerns raised throughout the consultation and by hon. Members in debates such as this—we have had several over the past few weeks and months. We will respond to the consultation in due course.

Not only do we want the system for distribution to be fair; we also want to ensure that every school has the resources it needs to deliver a world-class education for every child. In order to achieve that, we have protected the schools budget in real terms since 2010, and the Government have committed to increase the school budget further, as well as to continue to protect the pupil premium to support those who need it. The Queen’s Speech was clear that the Government are determined to introduce a fairer distribution of funding for schools. We will set out our plans shortly and, as outlined in our manifesto,

“we will make sure that no school has its budget cut as a result of the new formula.”

We know that how schools use their money is also important in delivering the best outcomes for pupils, so we will continue to provide support to help them use their funding cost-effectively. The Government have produced tools, information and guidance to support improved financial health and efficiency in schools, which is available in one collection on the website.

Will the Minister confirm whether he is saying that no school will lose, in real terms, per-pupil funding? That is a really important point. Protection of cash is not a protection given the current level of inflation and the cost pressures. Will he protect per-pupil funding for schools in Nottingham?

What I have said is that no school will lose per-pupil funding under that new national funding formula. The issue is that once the money has been allocated to the local authority, what the local formula can do—as advised by the school forum—is to redistribute that money in a different way. What I can say is that the commitment in our manifesto was that no school will lose money as a consequence of moving to a national funding formula.

I conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Nottingham South on securing this important debate. Accelerating the pace of school improvement across the country is a shared priority and we are committed to ensuring that, regardless of where they live, all young people have equal access to a high-quality education. Targeted support at a local level, as I have outlined, will help us to deliver that, and a national funding formula also underpins it. For the first time we would have a clear, simple and transparent system that matches funding to children’s needs and the schools they attend. It will enable all schools to provide a high-quality, knowledge-rich education for their pupils.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.