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Education Standards: Stoke-on-Trent

Volume 677: debated on Thursday 18 June 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Michael Tomlinson).

We live in challenging times. Coronavirus has disrupted many of our plans and dreams and many have lost loved ones. My sympathies go to all those who have lost friends and family. The virus has had a devastating impact across the globe, testing human ingenuity and resilience. Not least, it has disrupted education, and in a city like Stoke-on-Trent, where education outcomes, despite significant progress, still are not where we want them to be, the disruption has been the last thing that we needed. The immediate challenge is to get more pupils back to school.

I have been engaging with local headteachers and wish to place on the record my admiration for them and the work they are doing to facilitate reopening with new distancing measures. I have certainly been feeding back to the Secretary of State and the Department for Education the thoughts of our heads and any issues of concern. Almost every school in Stoke-on-Trent has stayed open throughout the lockdown for vulnerable and key worker children, and all of them have opened to more children now, with varying degrees of attendance.

For example, between 1 and 16 June, the recorded percentage of available sessions attended by nursery pupils across the city has ranged from just 2% to 100%—the 100% being recorded at the Clarice Cliff Primary School in my constituency. But even though 100% of sessions were attended, just 10% of nursery children enrolled at Clarice Cliff attended at least one of those sessions. I think the reporting of that attendance does not seem especially robust—indeed, teachers have told me off the record that they find the daily reporting forms over-onerous—but there does seem to be a link between disadvantage and non-attendance, with schools with high percentages of pupil premium children recording lower percentages of educational sessions attended.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend and co-city Member of Parliament. Before covid, 27 of our schools had 4% persistent absence or higher. Does he see that as an ongoing issue that we need to tackle now, and have needed to tackle since before the crisis?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen from some schools excellent examples of the work that has been put in place to address attendance. We need to see that mirrored across all our schools throughout the city, so that we can get attendance rates up.

Clearly, getting children back into school will take further effort, but I should like to thank all our teachers, who have been working incredibly hard to get schools ready and accommodating the necessary changes. They have made huge efforts to ensure that it is safe for those pupils to return. All children who are allowed to return should now do so. Parents need to be assured that it is safe, but I like to think that I am preaching by example, given that my son William is returning to nursery—he returned at the start of the month.

It is vital that we get pupils back to school as soon as possible, because the sad truth is that the children from the far less affluent communities that I represent in Fenton, Blurton, Longton and Meir will now have to go even further to catch up with the more typical middle-class communities elsewhere in England. It is time to start getting many more schools open again and, when they are open, to ensure that they are delivering even better outcomes and standards of education.

Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, and all credit must go to the work that has seen youth unemployment more than halve across the city over the past decade. I applaud the schools and the incredible efforts already made by the teachers in my constituency who have grasped the nettle and ensured that their pupils had the skills needed to find work. Before covid-19 hit, we were realising even more of the potential that will be the basis for our success in decades to come, but after this health crisis, we need to be more ambitious in the city and more ambitious about what our young people can achieve. I want to see a sharpening of the upward trajectory that we have been seeing. Nowhere is this more important than for our children and young people. Every person in our city should have the ability to achieve their full potential and be their best.

The concept of a job for life, which was so common in the past and which naturally suited honest, hard-working Stokies, is disappearing all around the world. People now change careers on average five to seven times in their working life, and they need the transferable skills to take the greatest advantage of that. If the security of a job for life is gone, the reassurance of meaningful multiple career options really needs to be there.

There is no finer advocate than my hon. Friend for the city that I am also proud to serve. Does he agree that we need to turbocharge apprenticeships in our city in order to create much better opportunities, rather than just the same old A-level and going-on-to-university option?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments; I fear he is slightly too kind. Absolutely; with apprenticeships and with all types of education, we need to focus on ensuring that more of our young people take those steps into higher education and into furthering their careers.

It is difficult to keep up with the pace of change when you are already behind, and although we have made great strides from where we were, we are, sadly, still behind in many areas. The problems that we are having to reverse in Stoke-on-Trent are deep-seated. As recently as December 2016, nearly half of all learners in secondary education were in schools judged by Ofsted to be less than good, and at key stage 2, Stoke-on-Trent’s children are behind the national average in reading, writing, maths and science. At key stage 4, the city’s outcomes are also too low. It pains me to say that little more than half of Stoke-on-Trent’s pupils achieve grades 9 to 4 in English and maths GCSE, compared with nearly two thirds of pupils nationally. Also, 33% of Stoke-on-Trent’s schools are categorised by Ofsted as requiring improvement.

Educational outcomes remain below the national average and significantly below for disadvantaged children. The city sits in the lowest quartile banding for the number of pupils achieving a level 3 qualification by the age of 19, and poor pupil attainment and progress are prevalent in a significant number of schools. The likelihood of a young person from Stoke-on-Trent progressing to higher education is significantly lower than the national average. It is 28% locally, compared with 38% nationally. The rates of exclusion from school are high. A concerted effort, backed up with innovation and transferable good practice, is needed across the schools in the city, and I certainly support enhancing the active role of Ofsted in driving standards up. Ofsted’s promise to offer non-judgmental support to schools that have stubborn difficulty in improving standards is welcome news. Schools and teachers should be receiving the support they need to properly tackle the challenges that they face. I know that many schools in the RI category would welcome that additional support. A number of them have been keen to make the huge efforts that are likely to see them move up to the good category at inspection.

We also need to see more outstanding practice, especially in secondary schools. We have seen some fantastic examples of outstanding practice across the city, and it is certainly on the rise, but we need to see more of it spreading across all our schools. There are currently no outstanding non-selective secondary schools in Stoke-on-Trent, although I slightly dispute this, as I think that the Ormiston Sir Stanley Matthews Academy in my constituency is outstanding. Although it is currently rated good, the fantastic leadership of the head, Mark Stanyer, and the work of teachers and pupils have resulted in it moving up to performing above average in its Progress 8, which is an incredible achievement of which it should be very proud.

My hon. Friend has some amazing schools in the south of the city. I could not miss the opportunity to plug Whitfield Valley Primary Academy, which has 84% of students meeting the expected standard and 25% meeting the higher expected standard. Does he agree that we need to ensure these schools, these beacons of light in Stoke-on-Trent, are given the opportunity? Perhaps they can meet the Minister who is present today to demonstrate the very best that we have in Stoke-on-Trent.

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments. I absolutely agree with him. At Whitfield Valley and all the schools we see outstanding levels of progress; it is very high at Whitfield Valley. We need to support that and for that good practice to flow out and be shared across all schools. Going back to the Sir Stanley Matthews Academy, it was recently the only school that was nominated in my constituency for one of my unsung hero awards for the amazing work it has been doing to support the local community in Blurton during the coronavirus outbreak.

Ambition and a lack of opportunity have been key issues locally. Stoke-on-Trent very much relates to the Government’s levelling-up agenda. We desperately need to increase the ambition of our children and get them fully engaged in purposeful, high-quality education.

In the 2016 social mobility index, Stoke-on-Trent was ranked 298th out of 324 districts. That is mirrored across a number of indicators of multiple deprivation. Levels of pay and the number of people with higher level qualifications in Stoke-on-Trent are much lower than in other parts of the country. On average, people can be expected to be paid nearly £100 less a week in Stoke- on-Trent than nationally, which is totally unacceptable. Improving opportunities and instilling in pupils the confidence that they can achieve is vital. That goes hand-in-hand with improving educational outcomes. Careers advice is crucial to tackling that. Whether for more vocational or academic pathways, we need to keep engaging with universities to address the city’s low application rates for further education.

Levelling up is needed. I say to the Government: please do work with us on the levelling-up agenda. They will find no city more eager to engage or more relevant to this agenda. It is certainly welcome that the Careers & Enterprise Company is working to ensure that every secondary school and post-16 provider in Stoke-on-Trent will have access to an enterprise adviser, someone senior from business volunteering their time and a share of a £2 million investment, so that every secondary school pupil has access to at least four high-quality business encounters.

I am also very supportive of the education employers’ Primary Futures programme, which is designed to link up schools with role models from different career backgrounds to help pupils to think more from an early age about the ambitions they might have for the future. This is about broadening horizons for our children, the myriad opportunities out there, breaking down some of the perceived stereotypical boundaries, and the big ambitions that start at an early age. I encourage more people from different walks of life and in senior careers to volunteer their time for this fantastic initiative.

I am also delighted to say that recent efforts to increase applications to Oxford and Cambridge from A-level students in Stoke-on-Trent seem to be working, but there is much more to do. We must open up new educational options for children from deprived backgrounds across the city. The industry is full of exciting new prospects calling Stoke-on-Trent their home. Ensuring our children and young people have the best possible education is vital for the future prosperity of our city. Stoke-on-Trent is a key cluster of advanced manufacturing, with absolutely top-end, world-leading manufacturing. These industries can offer amazing careers for local people.

An undeniable problem in achieving that, however, particularly in secondary education, is the real lack of school places. In Staffordshire last year, not including Stoke-on-Trent, 92% of pupils moving from primary school to secondary school got into their first choice of school and 90% did in neighbouring Cheshire. However, in Stoke-on-Trent first choice places were secured by only 82%. In fact, dozens of local parents contacted me to say that not only did their children not secure their first preference, but they did not secure a place at any of their chosen three. That means more than twice as many children are missing out in Stoke-on-Trent than in the rest of Staffordshire. Every one of the city’s 14 secondary schools is full and 11 are over-subscribed. Some pupils have been left facing a commute across the entire city into Newcastle-under-Lyme and back again every morning and evening, with no bus services that would realistically ever get them to school on time. Such a situation does not create the best conditions for pupils to learn or for teachers to teach. We must change that by creating more high-quality school places that will push up standards and increase local opportunities. That is no less than our young people in Stoke-on-Trent deserve.

That is why I am delighted to support plans for a new free school, the Florence MacWilliams Academy run by the Educo Trust, on part of the former Longton High School site. If permission is granted, the school will alleviate the challenges around admissions policy at a time of a projected increase in pupil numbers in what is now a rather youthful city. Sadly, that demographic shift was not planned for, and in addition we now see further significant growth from new residential development, which has not been factored into secondary places.

I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend in his efforts to bring about progress on a free school in the south of the city. Does he firmly believe that Stoke-on-Trent should be the beating heart of a free school revolution and that we should have one to drive up standards in the north of the city, too?

Of course, my top priority is one for the south of the city, but we do need good and outstanding places across the whole of our city.

As recently as 2008, Stoke-on-Trent City Council, under Building Schools for the Future, pursued a policy of school closures and mergers due to falling student numbers. Thank goodness that Trentham Academy, which was also threatened with closure, was saved thanks to a hard-fought campaign led by the community in Hanford and Trentham. If we had lost that school, too, the situation would now be a whole lot worse, so it is fantastic that instead, Trentham Academy’s results have been turned around and it is now performing very well. However, it is much in need of investment, given that it did not benefit from the BSF programme. Trentham Academy has probably had the least spent on it of any secondary school in the city in recent times. Serious consideration should be given to such investment, especially for improving sports and wider facilities in schools.

One of the schools to go altogether was Longton High School. Other than the section that is now used by Abbey Hill special school, much of the brownfield site remains empty. The motto of Longton High School was “Renascor”, or “I am born again”. Indeed, Longton High School was born again on the site in the 1950s, but its roots went right back to 1760, when the endowment founded what was called none other than the Longton Free School.

Much has changed since the closure programme of 2008, not least the political leadership and representation of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, and I am pleased to say that today’s Conservative-led city council has supported the application by Educo to take the Florence MacWilliams Academy forward. I am also pleased that the school has attracted support from a number of key partners of both local and national significance, with a number of influential figures making up the governing body.

Florence MacWilliams herself was an exceptional mathematician. She is renowned for contributing the MacWilliams identities to coding theory. I am afraid that my coding theory is a little rusty, but I do know my local history, and I can tell the House that Florence MacWilliams was born in Stoke-on-Trent during the first world war and was commonly known by her middle name, Jessie. At a time when it was still extremely rare for women to get the opportunity to go to university, she embarked on an education that culminated in a Cambridge MA and a Harvard PhD. She is a superb local role model in a city where life chances and social mobility continue to need close attention and where ambition and aspiration need to be pursued higher.

I particularly welcome Educo’s promise that there will be an intense programme of study for those pupils who fall behind and struggle, to help them master a strong core of knowledge and skills. A mathematics excellence partnership will be developed to support a maths hub, and literacy, including the spoken word, will be the key focus. It is expected that some 22% of pupils will come from households where English is not the first language.

As the Secretary of State for Education knows from the number of letters I have sent him and times I have spoken to him about this, the new school is for both improving standards and helping to address pressures on secondary places. The Minister will know that I recently went to see the Secretary of State with other local MPs, including my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), and the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council to ensure that officials in Whitehall understand exactly why we need this new school and how it will improve outcomes in the opportunity area.

It is certainly important that we realise every bit of value possible from the opportunity area work. There have already been successes. Our opportunity area is focusing on four areas identified as key priorities locally: early years education; English, maths and science outcomes; pupil engagement; and the choices young people make from 16. The opportunity area does much to leverage partnership funding, volunteering and expertise from both national organisations and local stakeholders. It embeds national policy in particular local contexts or, seen the other way, it embeds particular local priorities into contexts of national policy.

The opportunity area enables workstreams locally that will be of national benefit by further raising the skills and productivity of a city on the up, with a ceramics industry and a wider creative and advanced manufacturing economy undergoing a real resurgence. Like many towns and cities outside London, we need not only to improve our rates of educational attainment, but to retain educated graduates and skilled workers who are too often lured to the metropolitan honey pots and the wider south-east.

We need to see more of our young people undertaking higher education, including university. As a graduate of one of our local universities, Keele, I would strongly advocate that our young people give this their consideration. Perhaps by studying locally, people would be more likely to embed their roots and be retained locally in Stoke-on-Trent, as I have been.

Of course, educational pathways to advancement need to be broad and to lead to sectors, not particular specialisms. Alongside academic excellence, the Government are right about the need to make a success of sectoral T-levels and apprenticeships, including for lifelong learning and retraining, by investing in their success and by ensuring their prestige. Nothing promotes ambition like a clear route to employment and advancement, with a tangible career path that is not covered in doubts and the roadblocks that disadvantage can bring. I am delighted that Stoke on Trent College is one of the very first colleges to offer T-level qualifications.

Staffordshire University will be massively expanding the provision of degree apprenticeship education in the city, in partnership with local industries and employers. Sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon) cannot be here tonight due to self-isolation, but she is a key champion of apprenticeships in the city, including at Staffordshire University’s £40 million Catalyst centre, which has been developed in her constituency.

Local partnerships between academia and industry have an undoubted role in economic success. Despite the sheer hard work of my constituents to improve local levels of productivity—and productivity locally is indeed up—gross value added in Stoke-on-Trent is still comparatively low against the rest of the country. Part of the effort to level up the productivity gap between the UK and our international competitors must be to close the gap between sub-regions such as Stoke-on-Trent and the rest of the country. GVA per head is about a fifth lower in Stoke-on-Trent than the national average.

It can be tempting to say that this is all a function of trends in economic geography, yet we have shown in recent years that we can indeed increase our local rates of productivity through advanced manufacturing. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Stoke-on-Trent benefited from one of the fastest growing economies of any city nationally. It has been rated as one of the best places to start a new business and for business retention. Fortunes are changing for the better after decades of decline, and our huge untapped potential in the Potteries is starting to be unlocked.

Just as there is an internationally important Cheshire life sciences corridor to the north of Stoke-on-Trent, with schools and colleges in the area gearing themselves towards skilling pupils for the science industry, so there can be an advanced design and manufacturing cluster in Stoke-on-Trent itself. The UK ceramics industry is hugely ambitious. It is seeking to secure significantly increased year-on-year growth and to increase our international market share. We are getting clay back into the classroom, and there is a plan for an advanced ceramics campus in an international centre for research excellence to provide the highly skilled jobs for our young people to progress to in the future. My colleagues and I from the Potteries constituencies are lobbying to get the research centre in place as soon as possible.

The teachers at all our local schools do a fantastic job not only in teaching our children the curriculum, but in inspiring them to work hard for their futures. Our headteachers are working hard to overcome the immediate crisis and get our schools open again. We have seen improving standards across the board, and we must now go further so that every child in the city is learning in a good or outstanding school. Our longer-term challenge is to continue to push up standards, especially at 16. Although we have historical challenges locally, stemming from the sorry decline of the mass-manufacturing ceramics industry, these can no longer be used as excuses for poor standards, nor should they be a barrier to unlocking our potential.

There are many fantastic examples of excellent schools defying the odds throughout the city. In fact, the resurgence in local industries, especially with the advanced manufacturing-based ceramics industry, means that it is imperative that we raise local school standards so that we can keep that industry in the Potteries, the world capital of ceramics, as a key employer offering high-skilled, high-reward and high-satisfaction jobs to local people.

As it says in the Department for Education’s delivery plans for the Stoke-on-Trent opportunity area,

“Stoke-on-Trent is leading the way in innovative practice”.

It is

“a city with so much to offer, but too many children and young people leave school on the back foot, and do not have the skills and tools required to access the opportunities on their doorstep.”

This needs to change, and I will not rest until every child in our city is able to benefit from the best possible start in life. We need more choice, more places, greater rigour and purposeful opportunities. In that way, we can deliver higher standards of education in Stoke-on-Trent.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this important debate. I know that he is particularly passionate about schools in his constituency, and he continues to feed back his views and the views of his constituents about various local education issues. The Stoke-on-Trent area is one of huge potential, as he said, and an area targeted by the Government for additional support through the opportunity area policy, which I will talk about in a moment. He also shares the Government’s ambition that every state school is a good school, providing a world-class education that helps every child and young person to reach his or her potential, regardless of background.

Since 2010, the Government have worked hard to drive up academic standards in all our schools, and we continue to provide support to the schools that require it most. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that some schools are still on a journey of improvement, and those schools continue to benefit from the Government’s commitment of support.

An example of that support was the introduction of opportunity areas in October 2016, when the then Education Secretary announced that six social mobility coldspots would become opportunity areas. These opportunity areas were expanded further in January 2017, with six additional areas, including Stoke-on-Trent. As part of this announcement, £72 million of funding was made available to those areas to support education and communities. Stoke-on-Trent and those 11 other areas are benefiting from a range of additional support, which I think will have a huge impact in the long run in Stoke-on-Trent.

I join my hon. Friend in recognising the tremendous work of headteachers and teachers in Stoke-on-Trent, which has resulted in 80% of schools being judged good or better by Ofsted. Part of the support that the Government offer to all schools nationally is through the academies programme, which my hon. Friend talked about. This programme builds on our ongoing vision to develop a world-class, school-led system, giving school leaders the freedom to run their schools as they see fit. We now have more than 9,000 open academies. This system is working. My hon. Friend will have seen improvements in Whitfield Valley Primary School, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) also mentioned, reflecting the strength of the academies programme. The school joined the Inspirational Learning Academies Trust as a sponsored academy, and following its sponsorship, performance improved rapidly. The school was judged good in January last year, and its 2019 academic performance places it well above the national average. The trust also includes Newstead Primary Academy, located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South.

In a bid to support academy trusts in Stoke-on-Trent and nationally, we have launched a trust capacity fund, which will help trusts to expand. As my hon. Friend knows, the statutory duty to provide sufficient school places sits with local authorities. We provide capital funding for every place that is needed, based on local authorities’ own data on pupil forecasts. They can use that funding to build new schools or expand existing schools. Stoke-on-Trent has been allocated £32.7 million to provide new schools and new school places between 2011 and 2022.

Building on the need for more school places nationally, the Government have delivered a hugely ambitious free schools programme, through which we have funded thousands of good school places and opened hundreds of new schools across the country. That happens in waves, and we are now on wave 14. My hon. Friend mentioned Florence MacWilliams Academy. There have been 89 applications received for wave 14 of free schools, two of which came from Stoke-on-Trent. One application has been withdrawn. Florence MacWilliams Academy is a free school proposal submitted by the newly formed trust, Educo Academies. The application seeks to establish a co-educational 11-to-16 school in the south of the city of Stoke-on-Trent. We will make an announcement on the successful bidders to that scheme in due course.

In the final seconds left, I again pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his commitment to education in general and to the schools in his constituency in particular.

House adjourned.