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Low-Performing Areas: Education Funding

Volume 715: debated on Monday 23 May 2022

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our well wishes to the Minister for Higher and Further Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), as she is fighting covid and, I am sure, will defeat it.

To help all pupils to achieve their potential, I have increased core schools funding by £4 billion, which is a 7% increase in cash terms per pupil this year, in 2022-23; and I have directed—flexed—£2.6 billion of that funding towards low prior attainment children through the national funding formula.

The additional funding that schools in Blackpool receive through our status as an opportunity area and an education investment area will make a real difference on the ground. However, headteachers often raise with me the problem of digital exclusion when pupils are at home due to a lack of IT equipment, which obviously puts pupils from lower-income families at a comparative disadvantage. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that pupils from low-income backgrounds do not lose out due to digital exclusion?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his excellent question. I am working to ensure that every school has access to high-speed broadband connectivity by 2025. Priority schools in education improvement areas will be able to access our £150 million programme to upgrade their internal network infrastructure. During the pandemic, as my hon. Friend highlighted from his teachers’ point of view, many children did not have access to technology for learning at home, so we provided devices, wi-fi and data to disadvantaged students to support digital inclusion at home.

I am supporting my Bishop’s Stortford constituents’ “Turn on the Subtitles” campaign to improve children’s literacy across the board, but particularly in low-performing areas. Raj Chande, the director of Nesta’s “A Fairer Start” mission, said that the campaign’s evidence is compelling, and it has Nesta’s seal of approval—an important endorsement. Therefore, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to invest in the campaign by reviewing its mass of evidence, and will he encourage parents and children to turn on the subtitles?

I have set out in the White Paper that we share the commitment to raising literacy standards, as I am sure the whole House does, and we want to ensure that all children can read fluently and with that understanding. I thank Henry Warren and Oli Barrett MBE for their commitment to improving literacy levels, and they have championed that campaign. It is a choice for parents and guardians whether their child watches television and whether they do so with the subtitles on, but it certainly makes a difference in the Zahawi household.

Does the Secretary of State agree that as well as funding, data and transparency matter so that we can monitor things, act quickly and see that the plans that we have announced are working to improve schools right across Eastleigh?

I never tire of saying that data and transparency are our greatest allies in improving educational outcomes. We are absolutely focused on delivering against the ambitious targets that we have set for skills, schools and families, and on holding ourselves in the Department against them. Sharing our plans and performance data is a key lever to drive rapid improvement through the complex system that we oversee in education. I have committed to publishing a delivery plan setting out what we will achieve and a performance dashboard showing progress, and I want teachers and school leaders to do the same on behaviour, absenteeism and, of course, standards.

Does the Minister agree that the future of children’s education in the now city of Doncaster has never been brighter due to the excellent steps taken by this Government, the fantastic schools in Don Valley and the roll-out of my role models project on the ground, which shows young people all the career opportunities? With that in mind, will the Minister agree to come to Don Valley and see for himself the good work that is being done?

My hon. Friend is certainly a role model in how he has celebrated Doncaster becoming a city. I am delighted that the role models project is connecting schools in Don Valley to local professionals; it is inspiring and informative for young people to hear about the career journeys of role models and to learn about all the excellent career opportunities available to them in Doncaster. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend and seeing the project for myself.

Does the Secretary of State agree that any increases in funding for schools should be spent on teaching and learning, not on propping up failing energy companies? In an average primary school, £30,000 more—the cost of a teacher—is being spent on energy. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it? Will he include nurseries and early years settings in his assessment?

The 7% increase on last year, in cash terms, that we secured at the spending review for this year includes significant additional funding that allows us headroom, but the hon. Lady is right to highlight the point. Energy represents about 1.4% to 1.5% of schools’ budgets, but because of the energy spike, schools that are out of contract have seen that proportion increase to 7%, 8% or 9%. We are keeping a close eye on the matter. The one message that I would like the hon. Lady and every other hon. Member to take away to their schools is to get in touch with us if they are close to coming out of contract, because we can really help.

May I take the chance to congratulate Stockport children’s services on their “good” Ofsted rating?

I am really concerned at the lack of progress in educational attainment, particularly at secondary level, in schools in parts of my constituency across Stockport and Tameside. What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that all parents have the choice of schools with good performance and that children have the opportunities that a good education can bring?

I know that the hon. Gentleman and I share the same passion in what we want for every child. I do not believe that children in Stockport are less talented than children in South Kensington; they have just not had the same opportunity of a great teacher in every classroom in every school. I am determined to deliver that through the White Paper.

I join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating the inspection result for Stockport children’s services; they have done a phenomenal job. I hope that he will be in the Chamber for the statement by the Children and Families Minister—the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince)—about Josh MacAlister’s very important review, which has been published today.

You will understand, Mr Speaker, how disturbed I was to learn that Highland Council schools have been ranked as the worst in the whole of Scotland for numeracy and literacy among P1, P4 and P7 pupils. These children are our future. We used to be proud of Scottish education. Will the Government share their best practice with the Scottish Government so that this scandal is sorted out?

That is concerning, I have to say, because although education is devolved, we care about the whole United Kingdom. I am very happy to share our work through the education White Paper and the education Bill, and what we are doing on skills, with T-levels and the lifelong learning entitlement. I worry that Scottish children are being let down. It feels as if Scotland is in freefall down the league tables of the programme for international student assessment.

I am more interested in the Government’s record on academic inequality than in their rhetoric. The annual review of education by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals that since 2010, the most deprived secondary schools have suffered a 14% cut in spending, while for the most affluent schools the figure is just 9%. The new national funding formula makes the disparity worse. The Government’s 10 years of further education cuts also fell harder on poorer students. We all know that the Government stand against aspiration for deprived children and are increasing inequality, as those figures show. Why do they not at least have the courage to admit it?

The hon. Gentleman makes some powerful points, but they are completely misguided. He speaks with great passion, but without looking at the evidence before us. The past 12 years demonstrate that schools have been on an improvement journey. When we came into office, only two thirds of schools could achieve a good or outstanding rating; the figure is now 86%. My predecessors’ work on skills has taken investment in the skills agenda up to £3.8 billion. When we talk to teachers and school leaders around the country, they know that the White Paper will deliver great outcomes for every child. We have set our ambitions high for children all over the country; we know how to get there, and we will deliver.

I was sorry to hear about the Minister for Higher and Further Education, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), and I wish her a speedy recovery.

I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will join me in wishing all the young people throughout the United Kingdom who are currently sitting their national exams the best of success.

The Secretary of State has praised private schools, including Eton, for building free schools in places such as Oldham, which, according to him, need that investment in education. Can he confirm that it is now Government policy to rely on private school investment where Government funds have been lacking?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we should send our congratulations to the brilliant teachers who have delivered the 650,000 pupils who have taken their key stage 2 standard assessment tests this month. Students began taking their A-levels and GCSEs last Monday, and 3 million individual test scripts have been returned for marking. That is a great achievement after two years of being stuck with covid.

The hon. Lady asked about funding. This Government will be putting £56.5 billion into our school system. We have a plan, which is well evidenced, for delivering a great school with a great teacher for every classroom in the country. Scotland has no plan, and is in freefall in the international league tables.