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Plymouth Challenge for Schools

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 6 November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Plymouth challenge for schools initiative.

It is good to see you back in the Chair, Mr Howarth. Funding good schools is the best investment we can make in our children’s future. Teachers, teaching assistants and support staff do a superb job, but Ministers cannot keep asking them to do more and more with less and less. With rising costs, a crisis in recruitment and retention, and the mounting costs of the growing crisis in our young people’s mental health, the urgent need for decent school funding is as stark as any warning can be. I will speak about Plymouth, our funding challenge and how, by working with the Minister, we can create an initiative of which he, I and teachers in Plymouth can be truly proud. The Plymouth Challenge is an initiative worthy of the Minister’s focus, his Department’s energy and the investment of public funds.

Hon. Members will know that I spoke in the debate about school funding last week. I plan to touch on some of the same themes, but the crux of the debate is the specific funding ask for the Minister to back the Plymouth challenge. I am pleased that the Minister has agreed to meet me and a delegation of cross-party councillors, teachers and headteachers from Plymouth next month, but I will not waste another opportunity to pitch this fantastic initiative, thank the teachers and teaching staff who do such a superb job in Plymouth, and call for the urgent funding for children in Plymouth and the far south-west to get our fair share.

The Plymouth challenge is an example of collaborative action by several educational specialists that are working together to improve educational outcomes across Plymouth. The Plymouth challenge has cross-party support from Plymouth City Council’s Labour and Conservative leaderships and is backed by headteachers, and the regional schools commissioner’s office and the Plymouth Teaching School Alliance. Its focus is on promoting aspiration and leadership in secondary schools and helping to support schools to improve outcomes, especially at the end of key stage 4.

The Plymouth challenge seeks to replicate the success of other challenges across the country, most notably in London, but elsewhere in places such as Manchester and Hull. In each case, standards and teaching quality were driven up by the considerable and focused investment of time, energy and money in our teachers and schools. Focused deep learning enables teachers to improve on their weaknesses, build on their strengths, grow in confidence, share best practice and know that their passion and commitment to the children they teach is matched by a similar commitment to their development by their employers, the Government and their city.

Plymouth is in the bottom 10 of all local authorities for secondary school performance. We have one type of every school thought of by Governments since 1945, so it is not the lack of diversity or competition that is hitting standards. Results at the end of key stage 4 are below the national average, and the percentage of students achieving a strong pass in English and maths is below four in 10. On average, by the end of key stage 4, students have made less progress than similar students nationally. A shockingly high number of schools are judged inadequate—four out of 18, and five out of 18 before the studio school was closed in the summer, as the Minister knows.

Pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and disadvantaged pupils are increasingly likely to be off-rolled or excluded not because of the work of staff and students, but because the support is not there for those pupils to function and succeed in a mainstream environment. Elective home education has nearly tripled in four years, and in some schools fixed-term exclusions have risen by more than 200%.

The contrast is clear when we compare Plymouth with London. In the capital, nine out of 10 children go to a good or outstanding school, and the national average is about eight in 10, but for children in Plymouth it is five out of 10. One in two—50%—of our kids do not go to a good or outstanding school as rated by Ofsted, which needs to change.

The Plymouth challenge has the potential to be a huge success, but at the moment it is a voluntary initiative that hard-pressed teachers must do in addition to a full curriculum—marking homework, preparing lesson plans, filling in paperwork and being surrogate mental health workers, social workers, mentors, leaders and role models. It cannot function simply on a voluntary basis. Plymouth City Council has said that only £900,000 to £1.3 million is required to implement the first phase of the scheme. That would be money well spent, and good value, too. In Plymouth, we have the will and the passion, but we simply lack the funding and time to make it work. Our teachers and teaching assistants need deep learning. That cannot be just one hour swapped out of a classroom for a quick update on skills; it must be deep, intensive learning so they benefit from the latest in teaching quality initiatives. The children who otherwise would have been taught by them must have a high-quality replacement to ensure that their education does not suffer because of their teacher’s participation in the scheme.

Training matters, because training and investment in a person’s development improves retention and reignites the passion for learning. I have spoken to countless teachers who have either left the profession or are considering leaving because of the pressure, the stress and the seemingly never-ending squeeze on spending and real-terms pay cuts. The Plymouth challenge could help to address that.

School funding has been a growing concern for a number of years, as schools in Plymouth and the far south west as a whole continue to be denied our fair share of resources. The hon. Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) is dealing with an urgent constituency matter, in which he has my full support, but has asked that his support for this call be added to my remarks. If other Conservative Members had been here today, I am certain their concerns about education funding in Devon and Cornwall would also be highlighted. Although it is a particularly dodgy socialist standing in front of the Minister today, many Members not only in my party, but in his, too, share this concern and back this solution.

Two weeks ago, I met headteachers during my one of my regular pastries and politics roundtables in Plymouth, and the seemingly never-ending pressures on finances, cropped up time and again. As the proud son of a teacher, I know how hard teachers work. Each of them is full of love and passion for their subject, but too often today their spark is being put out. Too many are left frustrated and demoralised by the double-edged sword of a lack of support and an increase in pressure to do more with less.

Schools across my constituency have suffered consistent underfunding since 2010, and a vicious cycle of cuts—particularly cuts that that do not sit in the education budget but affect things that local authority budgets previously took care of—has worsened existing conditions. As class sizes have increased, the number of teachers and teaching assistants has decreased, and the vulnerable and poorest students in our communities are increasingly in the most underfunded schools.

Plymouth has one of the lowest education spends per head in the United Kingdom—£415 less per child than London and £300 less per child than the national average. That shortfall has had a damaging impact on students in Plymouth, who continue to fall behind the national average for academic attainment. Funding and attainment are linked.

When the national funding formula is fully implemented in about 2020-21, Coventry will receive £4,806 per pupil, compared with Plymouth’s £4,532. That difference of £274 per pupil equates to a loss of funding of £9.4 million for Plymouth. Coventry is a city similar in size, population and demographics to Plymouth, but it has very different education funding. I have no fight with Coventry—except when it comes to football—but I use that example to illustrate that not all children are being valued in the same way across the country.

The Minister will know from my remarks during the previous debate on this subject that I have particular concerns, one of which is the maximum gains cap. I would like the Minister to consider reviewing and removing the 3% maximum gains cap, which is part of the national funding formula. One of the key principles of the national funding formula was that pupils with similar characteristics should attract similar levels of funding, wherever they are in the country. That is a good idea, but the maximum gains cap prevents schools that have been underfunded for many years from receiving their fair share of their current entitlement because their gains are throttled. For example, under the funding formula, Plymouth is due to gain £10.6 million, but the maximum gains cap means that, in practice, schools in Plymouth will receive less than half that amount— £4.7 million in 2018-19 and £8.7 million in 2019-20. The gains cap means that they will get less than they should be getting under the funding formula.

Even with the additional funding formula, Plymouth continues to receive considerably less than the national average. I would be grateful if the Minister could review whether the gains cap is appropriate, and whether it could be flexed or removed to give places such as Plymouth, which have received lower funding deals historically, a chance to catch up more quickly. It seems to me that the schools that have lost out the most will be disadvantaged in their progress towards a fairer position because of that historical underinvestment. It does not seem fair, equitable or justifiable that the Government put in place this policy. To achieve the objectives that the Minister rightly wants and to have a fairer funding formula for all pupils, we need to address the maximum gains cap, which throttles that benefit.

I am certain that many of the teachers watching this debate will be alarmed that Department for Education rules have limited the fairer funding formula. I would be grateful if the Minister looked again at the role of the maximum gains cap, and perhaps lifted the cap for Plymouth. That would provide some of the money that the Plymouth challenge needs. I remember from what the Minister said in the previous debate that, although the figures for the period between now and the end of the fairer funding formula are limited, that important retrospective gap must also be addressed.

Many of the teachers who got in touch with me ahead of this debate raised concerns about mental health funding and the increased pressure that that puts on their role in the classroom. The Government’s warm words on mental health are to be welcomed, and I back many of them, but there have been cuts to mental health provision for young people in primaries, especially in the Plymouth excellence cluster—a body that pooled mental health funding for our schools—which lost its funding earlier this year.

The three-year mental health funding deal for secondary schools in Plymouth is due to expire this year, and no replacement funding has been identified. That cannot be right, and I would be grateful if the Minister gave urgent consideration to providing support, especially for young people who are receiving mental health support. If money cannot be found for them from existing school budgets to replace that funding, they will lose it. Our teachers are brilliant, but they cannot also be professional mental health workers. Many of them have raised that concern with me.

Rather than hear it from me, it is more fitting if the Minister hears this from the teachers themselves. When I secure a debate in this place, I often let people know about it on my Facebook and Twitter pages, and even on Instagram. Last week, I asked people to send in their stories and experiences. I am sure many of them will be familiar to the Minister. Flex wrote to me to say:

“I’m a Supply teacher and a product of the ‘Troops to Teachers’ scheme. Of the 50 teacher trainees that began the course and 2 years into teaching there are 12 of us left nationally. I have worked in many schools in the Plymouth area and many are seriously underfunded. TAs are invaluable supporting SEN or 1-1 children to simply keep a class running. I have worked in schools that have run out of books, paper or have a shortage of IT or Sports equipment. As a Supply, I regularly fund and bring my own resources into certain schools because I know some items will not be available such as pens.”

Plymouth City Council and many of Plymouth’s teachers wrote to me ahead of this debate to share the key asks. Unlike other challenge programmes around the country such as those in Manchester, London and Hull, there has been no targeted DFE funding, although it has provided official support on staff time. I would be grateful if the Minister committed to investigate what funding pots are available to support the Plymouth challenge and initiatives like it around the UK.

I would also be grateful if the DFE sent a clear message that all Plymouth children should expect to be able to attend a good or outstanding school, and set out a timeframe. At the moment, only half our children attend schools in that bracket. I would be grateful if the Minister set out a framework for working with Plymouth City Council and local schools and academies to support the Plymouth Challenge steering group to achieve that objective.

As part of our funding request, we seek resources to appoint a full-time challenge co-ordinator and for an outstanding headteacher or experienced professional from outside Plymouth to be seconded for at least a year to provide the professional challenge, curiosity and inquiry that is vital to making an initiative such as the Plymouth challenge work. I would be grateful if the Minister and his officials supported us in that endeavour.

The Minister knows that Plymouth has every type of school thought of by every Government since 1945. Diversity of provision is the daily reality in Plymouth, so lack of diversity is not the problem. The problem is the fragmentation to which that leads. I would be grateful if the DFE signalled a commitment to driving collective accountabilities instead of supporting that fragmented system. I recognise that there are challenges with that, but although there seems to be a belief that Plymouth has achieved the perfect level of competition that Ministers seek, it has encountered problems, perhaps earlier than other cities around the country that are progressing towards that.

Finally, given the growing focus on multi-academy trusts, I would be grateful if the Minister told us where there is intentional design of MAT development in the far south-west and Plymouth, and how successful MATs and school leaders can be secured to support the city. No school should lose out from the MAT process.

Let me read testimonies from two teachers who wrote to me ahead of the debate. Tom wrote:

“This is only my fourth year as a teacher and I am close to just about avoiding becoming one of those five year drop-out statistics. On a good day, it can be a hugely inspiring and rewarding job but the immense pressures involved mean that a remarkable number of passionate teachers have left.

I have been involved in one of the key elements of the Plymouth Challenge: the idea that local schools need to more efficiently collaborate with regards to curriculum planning, moderation, CPD etc. It’s a project with an admirable goal. However, rather than funding coming from the existing budgets of already struggling schools, the government urgently needs to provide an additional grant for the Plymouth Challenge as it did previously for other major cities.”

Nina wrote:

“I’ve been a teacher and leader for over 13 years and I love my job. I have also had a real terms pay cut again this year and seen amazing teachers leave the profession. I have been involved in Plymouth Challenge since early 2018.”

She stated that the main issue is that there is no funding,

“yet the expectations being placed on teachers to deliver results are significant. Schools, teaching staff, support staff and school leaders are keenly aware and can’t work any harder—but maybe we could work smarter.

Plymouth Challenge was sold to schools as a model by which subject specific hubs could be set up to organise training and develop and share expertise. But there’s no money and teachers who volunteered to help run these hubs were told we should think about what we could charge schools to attend and that we could have start up loans”.

Nina goes on:

“There is so much goodwill—so much expertise—but the lack of funding means there is a creeping scepticism and frustration. The Plymouth Challenge has immense potential but we can’t ‘maximise current funding streams’ to make it work – those funding streams are already maxed out.”

There is huge enthusiasm for the Plymouth challenge among teachers and teaching staff in the city. There is a window of opportunity in the next few months for us to secure it by getting to grips with funding it properly and providing wraparound support for teachers. The initiative can work, and it must work if we are to achieve the improvements in grades that we all want.

If austerity really is over, the Government have the opportunity by supporting this campaign to make up for historical underfunding in Plymouth and to improve the lives of children in my city in real terms. I say to the Minister: support teachmeets and online training courses focused on Plymouth priorities, support our young people’s mental health services, support our aspirations to empower disadvantaged students, and support co-operative models across Plymouth’s schools to look at how we can ensure that every child, regardless of their background, their parents’ jobs or their postcode, has a chance to fulfil their potential.

I genuinely look forward to working with the Minister. There is potential for us to work in a cross-party way to ensure that all our kids in Plymouth succeed and achieve their best.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Howarth. I congratulate the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced it. We share a vision for Plymouth of ensuring that every child in the city, regardless of their background or where they live, receives a world-class education that enables them to reach their full potential. That vision is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter), whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). They continually raise education issues with me in the Chamber and the voting Lobbies.

Let me say up front that I support the Plymouth Challenge, which is a school-led initiative supported by Plymouth City Council and the regional schools commissioner, who is appointed by the Secretary of State. The challenge was set up to tackle historical underperformance in a number of secondary schools in the city. It seeks to harness the many strands of school improvement initiatives currently being undertaken in the city and to add to those initiatives capacity, resources and experience from other schools in the area and from outside the area. It was developed by the headteacher strategy group, which is made up of secondary headteachers.

As the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport knows, the Plymouth Challenge is organised around three strands: strengthening leadership, raising standards and raising aspirations. On the second of those, systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. It is hugely important to secure the basics to equip young people with the life skills to decode, read and understand the world around them. The proportion of pupils in Plymouth who meet the required standard in the phonics check rose from 58% in 2012 to 82% in 2018, in line with the national average.

At key stage 2, Plymouth schools and pupils have risen to the challenge of the more rigorous primary school national curriculum that we introduced in 2014. In 2018, 62% of primary school students in Plymouth reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. That represents an eight percentage point improvement on the 54% of pupils in Plymouth who achieved the same result in 2016. Despite that gain, Plymouth’s figure is still two percentage points below the national average. It is therefore important that the primary sector continues to deliver improvements and builds on that upward trajectory in reading, writing and maths to get it above the national average.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, outcomes at secondary level are mixed. In 2018, 40.4% of students in Plymouth entered the English baccalaureate, which is a core group of academic GCSEs—English, maths, at least two sciences, a language and a humanity. That figure outstrips the national average of 35.1% and is 1.5 percentage points higher than the figure for Plymouth in 2014.[Official Report, 15 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 4MC.] That means more young people in the city are studying and achieving through a core academic curriculum, which I firmly believe provides them with the knowledge and skills for a variety of careers beyond school life. However, we need the proportion of pupils studying the EBacc combination to rise significantly in every secondary school in the city.

On other key stage 4 measures, Plymouth lags behind the rest of the country. Its 2018 Progress 8 score is minus 0.32, which is below the national average. One way of improving standards, particularly at secondary level, is harnessing expertise both within and outside a city. A strong Exeter-based multi-academy trust is already having an impact by driving up expectations. Standards at two Plymouth secondary schools are benefiting from that expertise, and Reach Feltham, the top-performing London academy, provides that partnership with leadership support and challenge. That model is proving very effective.

We need to look outwards and build on great examples across the country, be that Michaela Community School’s marriage of high standards, exemplary behaviour and manageable teacher workload, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, Tom Bennett’s approach to improving behaviour in schools, or the myriad trusts finding success in the face of challenging circumstances.

There is also a benefit to be realised from more formal structural partnerships in the city. We welcome the increased engagement in Plymouth of high-quality multi-academy trusts outside the immediate region. Reach South Academy Trust is an example of a MAT that has done precisely that, bringing external expertise and experience into the city by creating a cross-phase hub and, as part of that, sponsoring UTC Plymouth.

The hon. Gentleman raised the national funding formula, specifically the maximum gains cap. Nationally, approximately 75% of schools, including those that were historically underfunded, will be on the national funding formula allocation by 2019-20. I reassure him that schools are already benefiting from that. The formula has allocated an increase for every pupil in every school in 2018-19, with increases of up to 3% for underfunded schools and more for the very lowest funded.

Changes to the formula have delivered significant gains in Plymouth, where schools have attracted an extra 3.3% per pupil on average this year. By 2019-20, that will be 5.9% more per pupil compared with 2017-18. That is equivalent to an extra £251 for every pupil, or a total increase of £10.2 million when factoring in rising pupil numbers. Furthermore, 15 Plymouth schools benefit from the formula’s minimum per-pupil funding level. These schools will not have their gains capped, so they will attract their full allocation by 2019-20.

The Department has also prioritised additional support for Plymouth through the strategic school improvement fund, with £681,000 approved to support 42 Plymouth schools, including funding projects focused on the teaching of phonics and maths. The high-quality training delivered through the secondary system leadership project has been welcomed. Although the project is in its infancy, I am confident that it will deliver increased capacity and capability in effective school self-review, peer review and school-to-school support and improvement.

Two Plymouth secondary schools have further benefited from £299,000 in emergency school improvement funding to drive longer-term whole-school support. The impact of that funding has been significant. For example, a “Ready to Learn” behaviour approach at All Saints Academy has fostered a culture in which rules matter and is proving to be an enabler of excellent teaching.

Furthermore, we have given strong trusts in Plymouth the opportunity to access additional funding to improve schools and increase social mobility through the MAT development and improvement fund. Four Plymouth trusts have been awarded grants and will access a minimum £298,000 of funding in this financial year. In total, that is more than £1 million in additional funding that the Government are injecting into the Plymouth education system. Funding for Plymouth schools is £149.6 million this year, rising to £153.3 million next year.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the importance of the Plymouth Challenge initiative. I share his vision of a high standard of education for all pupils and a system that enables all—regardless of background —to reach their potential. I have spoken about the collaborative stewardship role that we have taken in working towards transforming education in Plymouth, the impact of the funding streams that we have harnessed and committed to the city’s schools and the importance of working with stakeholders and learning from excellence outside the city. I have also spoken of the formal and informal ways in which we are strengthening leadership, raising aspirations and improving standards for the benefit of Plymouth pupils now and in the future.

I am keen to work with the hon. Gentleman and other Plymouth Members, and headteachers from his constituency, to explore how we can support the system, allowing schools to be at the forefront of improvement while continuing to challenge standards. I very much welcome his involvement in seeking to raise standards in Plymouth schools and very much want to be part of that process. Working with him, headteachers and other Plymouth MPs, I am sure that we can achieve a huge amount through the Plymouth Challenge to raise standards in all Plymouth schools.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.