I beg to move,
That the following Standing Order shall have effect until 31 December 2023:
Fair Taxation of Schools and Education Standards Committee
(1) There shall be a select committee, to be called the Fair Taxation of Schools and Education Standards Committee, to consider reforming the tax status of private schools in order to raise funding for measures to increase educational standards across the state sector, including the recruitment of new teachers, additional teacher training, and careers advice and work experience for all pupils.
(2) It shall be an instruction to the committee that it shall make a first report to the House no later than 20 July 2023.
(3) The committee shall consist of eleven members of whom ten shall be nominated by the Committee of Selection in the same manner as those select committees appointed in accordance with Standing Order No. 121.
(4) The chair of the committee shall be a backbench member of a party represented in His Majesty’s Government and shall be elected by the House under arrangements approved by the Speaker.
(5) Unless the House otherwise orders, each member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it until the expiration of this Order.
(6) The committee shall have power—
(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time; and
(b) to appoint specialist advisers to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference.
(7) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.
(8) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.
In this House we often talk of tough choices, especially since the Conservatives crashed the economy, but today I present the House with a very easy choice: to invest in the future of every child or to protect tax breaks for the wealthiest. We on the Opposition side know where we stand. Labour believes that excellence is for everyone—excellence for every child, in every school, in every corner of our country. I ask hon. Members to support that ambition by establishing a new Select Committee to consider how to end the inexcusable tax breaks that private schools enjoy and invest that money in driving up standards across all our state schools.
The evidence for ending private schools’ tax breaks is very clear:
“Removing the tax advantages of private schools would boost standards in the state sector and raise vital extra funds”.
I agree, but those are not my words; they are the words of the now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. It should be an easy choice, but we have tabled this motion because once again the Government are failing—failing to stand up to the vested interests in their own party, failing to consider the evidence even when their own Members have previously urged them to act and, yet again, failing our children.
There will be nobody who does not agree with the basic premise that we want to see excellence in all of our schools. Can the hon. Lady explain why she thinks she needs a Select Committee to achieve her aspiration? Surely she needs either an amendment to a Finance Bill or primary legislation? She does not need a Select Committee.
We will be considering all of our options for how to force this issue, but this is a choice for Conservative Members. There is a clear and straightforward way that we could look carefully at this issue, and the motion sets that out. The question for Conservative Members is whether they are prepared to defend inexcusable tax breaks for private schools, or whether they want to invest that money in ensuring that all our children in our state schools get a great start in life.
May I ask the shadow Secretary of State whether any Labour Members on the current Education Committee have put such ideas forward to its Chair for investigation by the existing Select Committee?
I cannot speak on behalf of other hon. Members, but I will happily address the point about the substance of the Select Committee in a moment.
Our children are at the heart of Labour’s ambition for Britain. Children alive today can expect to live into the next century, with the pace of change increasing and technological advancements growing. We must equip them for that world, and that must shape how we think about our schools today and tomorrow, about what it means to grow up in this country and about what the country they inherit will become. Children do not lack vision. Time and again, when meeting, talking to and listening to children, I am struck by their optimism and ambition, and not just for themselves and their families, but for our country and our world.
I am determined that, in government, Labour will match that ambition. The education we provide for our children today will shape all our futures, and by delivering an excellent education for every child, we will build a better future for all levels. A child at school now cannot pause and wait for change; they get only one childhood and they get only one chance. Our job is to make sure that their childhood is the best it possibly can be.
This House should not wait either. The Government have told us that they are not prepared to act. The hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), the Chair of the Education Committee, has set out his priorities—I am glad to see that someone in his party is talking about childcare for once, and I welcome his Committee’s interest in this area. However, we urgently need action there too, driving up school standards and the opportunity to end private schools’ tax breaks. A new direction and new ambition are needed to drive forward that change.
When I was on the Education Committee in 2019—just for the information of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis), conversations about future work tend to happen confidentially within a Select Committee—we produced a report on special educational needs and disabilities, which one of our best pieces of work. In that report we highlighted the need to train teachers and people working in schools on SEND as a key priority. The money that my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is talking about could be used to provide that training, the need for which was identified back in 2019, but which is yet to take place because schools do not have the funding they need and the Government are prioritising tax breaks for private schools instead.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will set out in more detail exactly what difference that money could make to delivering a brilliant education for all our children.
On money, the case could hardly be stronger. After more than a decade of Conservative Governments, what do we have to show for it? We have childcare in crisis, a recovery programme in chaos, staff leaving our schools in their droves, school buildings collapsing, attainment gaps widening, apprenticeship numbers in freefall, colleges being pushed to the brink, and universities treated as a political battleground, not as a public good.
Once again, it will be the task of the next Labour Government to repair our schools system and equip it for the future. But we know that takes money. As the cost of living crisis spirals, the Government have imposed the greatest tax burden for 70 years, reaching again and again into the pockets of working people to fix their mess. Labour will put our children, their futures and the future of our country first by asking those with the broadest shoulders to contribute their fair share; by requiring private schools to pay business rates, as state schools already do, and to pay VAT, as our colleges already do.
At this time of economic uncertainty, asking the public to subsidise a tax break for private schools is inexcusable. We are not talking about small sums. Putting VAT on independent school fees would raise “about £1.7 billion”—those are the Chancellor’s words, not mine.
The hon. Lady talks about these so-called tax breaks. Does she not appreciate that all private schools have a duty to give bursaries and scholarships? I myself went to a private school, and I could only afford to do so on a bursary. Does she not understand that her plans will destroy that, making private schools the privilege only of the super-rich and absolutely destroying the middle classes? The people of Rother Valley who send their children to Mount St Mary’s College and other private schools often do so through bursaries. Why does she want to deprive my constituents of that sort of education?
I will come in more detail to the record of private schools on the means-tested support that they make available, and on falling partnerships, but I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that it is not a great record. I gently suggest to him that the people of Rother Valley and across our country—the vast majority of whom send their children to state schools—would prefer his focus to be on driving up standards in state schools, not on defending the tax breaks enjoyed by private schools.
I have heard enough from the hon. Gentleman, thanks.
On funding, we could do so much to drive up standards in schools for all our children. The new committee would look at the ways in which money raised from ending tax breaks for private schools could support high standards for all our schools everywhere, including through recruiting new teachers. We know that the most important factor for boosting children’s learning in school is the quality of teaching. Teachers, school leaders and support staff are doing an incredible job to support our children, but there are simply not enough of them. Under this Government, teacher vacancies have more than doubled, there are more than 2,000 temporarily filled posts a year, and teacher recruitment targets have been missed yet again. More teachers are leaving than entering our classrooms. For a decade they have been overworked, overstretched and undervalued. Our growing teacher recruitment and retention crisis was created by this Government.
Labour has said that we would use the money raised by ending private schools’ tax breaks to support our teachers. We would invest in recruiting thousands of new teaching staff, filling those vacancies and plugging skills gaps, and ensuring that teachers are not burnt out because they are covering their own job and someone else’s. Once they are in our schools, we will support every teacher with the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, and with an entitlement to ongoing training, so that instead of trying to squeeze learning for professional qualifications into evenings or weekends, or the odd session on an inset day, teachers are encouraged and supported to take on learning opportunities.
Labour would support teaching staff with the skills that they say they need to support children who have special educational needs and disabilities or who have learned English as a second language, and would help them to develop their professional expertise in the curriculum or knowledge sequencing. That training would ensure that teachers are confident in their expert knowledge and can help every child to thrive. Those steps would help the next Labour Government to ensure that every child is taught by a qualified teacher. Every child and every parent should have that guarantee.
Of course, we all agree with the hon. Lady about all children going to excellent schools and being taught by excellent teachers. Can she set out her plans for armed forces families, who are so well supported by private schools up and down the country? My constituency has so many forces families. More than 5,000 forces family children in this country, particularly those from single-parent families, go to boarding school to allow their parents to be deployed. The continuation of the education allowance covers some of that, but so often it is backed up by the bursaries given by schools and by taxpayers’ money. Can she set out how her plans would protect children from armed forces families?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to our amazing armed forces and the contribution that they make to keeping our country safe. It is right that they are properly supported and recognised. However, those numbers are starting to fall. Clearly, the Committee that we are recommending could consider all such areas. We do not anticipate that the proposals would cover specialist provision either, for example. There are ways in which they can be carefully drawn to ensure that exemptions apply where they should. I join her in paying tribute to the armed forces—she need not be concerned about what we are discussing today.
Our school staff are at the heart of our education system, but they have been let down. That is never clearer than when the Government refuse to work with them. No teacher wants to strike, no headteacher wants to close their school, and no teaching assistant or educational support worker wants to miss out on time with the children they help to succeed—they go into teaching to improve and transform lives—but this Government’s neglect means that they feel they have no choice. The Government are still failing to take seriously the urgent need to get around the table and prevent strike action.
For months, a merry-go-round of Education Secretaries and chaotic mismanagement has seen our children and our schools go neglected. We have had five Education Secretaries in one year; it is no wonder that no solutions have been found. After months of refusing to meet, to negotiate or even to acknowledge the problems around pay and conditions, an eleventh-hour meeting was little more than window dressing. The Government could still avert strike action, but they need a plan and they need to start working with teachers now.
Labour has set out our plan. Through recruiting new teachers and valuing those in the profession, we would work together to help every child to thrive.
I am sure that my hon. Friend will join me in paying tribute to teaching assistants and school support staff, who play such a tremendous role in educating and assisting in the classroom. Many of our schools face the prospect of having to do away with teaching assistants simply because of budget pressures. Does she agree that our plan goes some way to addressing that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We all see and recognise the value that our teaching assistants, learning support assistants and school support staff bring to our schools. Our teachers just could not do their jobs effectively without them. We all recognise their contribution, and I join him in paying tribute to them.
For everyone in this House, there is nothing more important than our support for children’s education and ensuring that standards in all schools are up to scratch and equal. In the thoughts that the hon. Lady is putting forward, can she address the issue of underachievers? I know that the Minister of State at the Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), was at one time very keen on that issue. In my constituency, and across the whole of the United Kingdom, people—young, white Protestants, can I say?—underachieve because they do not get the educational opportunities that they need. Does the hon. Lady feel that what she is proposing can change that to the benefit of people who do not get the educational standards that they should?
Here in England we see growing and widening attainment gaps in many areas, but I point out to Ministers that we saw that starting to happen even before the pandemic hit. We all recognise and appreciate the impact that covid has had on our children’s education and wellbeing. I still think it is shameful that the Government failed to act on Sir Kevan Collins’s recommendations to bring forward a thorough recovery plan to support all our children. The Prime Minister claimed, when he was Chancellor, that he had “maxed out” on the support available to our children. Sadly, that will cast a very long shadow over children’s life chances here in England.
Our teachers do so much to improve the lives of children, but over the last few years they have truly gone above and beyond. From the covid pandemic to the cost of living crisis, our schools are supporting and holding communities together. They are doing an incredible job, but they cannot change all that happens beyond the school gates. Rising child poverty is holding children back, as is the growing mental health crisis. Too many children are struggling with their mental health, and they are struggling without support—unable to see a GP, stuck on child and adolescent mental health services’ waiting lists for years and left in limbo without help. No child should be left without the support they need to be happy and healthy, and no parent should be left feeling unsupported and alone when helping their child to face mental health problems.
We know that supporting young people with mental health is putting another burden on schools and our overstretched school staff, and the Government just are not doing enough. Mental health support teams are reaching a fraction of the children who could benefit. Senior leaders are being required to take on yet another responsibility for children’s mental health, because child and adolescent mental health services are unable to tackle the backlogs. We all know that wellbeing is essential to enabling children’s learning, but again the Government are letting young people down.
Using the money raised, Labour will give children access to professional mental health councillors in every school. We will ensure that children are not stuck waiting for referrals, unable to get support, and that teachers are not trying to carry the burden of young people’s mental health on top of wider workloads. We will ensure that every child knows that help is at hand. For young people for whom accessing support in school is not the right choice, we will deliver a new model of open-access youth mental health hubs. Providing an open door for all our young people, getting support to children early, preventing problems from escalating, improving young people’s mental health, not just responding when they are in crisis, and enabling them to learn and to thrive—that is Labour’s plan.
One of the issues that we see, sadly, is the stigma associated with mental health, especially in some communities. Does my hon. Friend feel that, if we give our young people access to mental health provision from a young age, that stigma will not grow in them as they become adults and they will be able to discuss mental health with their families, especially those families who we know need help and support? Because there is stigma in those communities, those children are not able to discuss that.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is incredibly important that we tackle the stigma that exists. That should be on a genuine cross-party basis. It is in all our interest that we make it as easy as possible for people to come forward and get the help they need. Sadly, even when people are able to come forward because they recognise they are struggling, they will wait years sometimes even to be seen. That cannot be right and that is why, under our motion, we would use some of the money raised to make sure that all our children get the mental health support they need as quickly as possible.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will just make a little more progress, if my hon. Friend will allow.
Our motion will also task the committee to consider how the money raised by ending tax breaks could deliver the careers advice that young people so desperately need. Two thirds of young people do not have access to professional careers advice. Pre-pandemic, almost half of young people reported that they felt unprepared for their futures. Half of employers reported that young people were leaving education unprepared for the world of work. The Government are failing to support young people, and that is failing our economy, too. Their illogical plan to scrap Connexions has left a gaping hole that Labour will fill. We will invest in more than 1,000 new careers advisers and embed them in schools and colleges across the country, stepping in where Conservative Governments have failed.
This week, I spoke to some of the biggest businesses in the country. They told me that they struggled to engage with schools around careers and jobs of the future. They are concerned that teachers do not know what opportunities exist now and will exist in future. They worry that young people are not getting the access to the opportunities they need. Just as they step in to compensate for our struggling mental health service, teachers are also doing their best with careers advice, but it is not the job of teachers to fill this hole. I want our teachers free to focus on ensuring the highest standards in our schools, delivering opportunities and making learning fun. For a decade, this Government have piled more and more responsibilities on to our teachers. It is time to let teachers teach.
By expanding a network of professional careers advisers across our schools and colleges, we would free up teacher and lecturer capacity, and we would give young people the expert support they need to make informed choices about their futures and to learn about apprenticeships, T-levels and vocational opportunities, alongside the higher education options available to them. We would go further and introduce a minimum of two weeks’ work experience for every young person, opening up new opportunities, enabling young people to explore their interests, build confidence and develop the skills that employers tell us they desperately need.
While Government neglect is leaving young people unprepared for their futures and the world they will inherit, Labour is facing the future. We want to meet the collective challenges that we all face—the digital shift, climate change and automation—and that starts in school and must continue with learning throughout all our lives. Labour’s plans will embed mandatory digital skills across the curriculum to make sure that no child leaves school without the basic digital skills they need for the modern world. Our plans will ensure that young people in school and college today leave our education system ready for work, ready for life and ready to grasp the opportunities of the better-paid jobs of the future. This is what aspiration for our children looks like: creating opportunities, driving high standards and delivering excellence for all, and that is what parents want from Government, too—not parroting lines from the independent schools lobby, but standing up for children and their life chances.
It is clear that the Government’s arguments on private schools simply do not add up. Private school fees have far outstripped wage rises over the past 20 years. Boarding school fees now average a mammoth £37,000 a year. That is more than the average worker earns in a year and is beyond the reach of all but the very wealthiest in our society. Conservatives will turn to bursaries, but the Independent Schools Council’s own figures shows that a mere 8% of children get means-tested fee support. The partnerships with state schools that they use to justify this special status have gone down again this year.
Protecting private schools is not about aspiration for all our children; it is about ensuring exclusive opportunities remain in the hands of a privileged few. Government Members know that. Back in 2017, they committed to review private schools’ tax status if partnerships did not grow, because they recognised that it is unfair and unreasonable to ask the public to pay for opportunities that most can only imagine. What has changed in that time? I note that the Minister for Skills, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), is with us today. When he was Chair of the Education Committee, he said that
“charitable status for most private schools is something that should come to an end. The monies saved by Government from these concessions could be used for more teachers”.
We agree, but what has happened since?
We know that the now Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), described the elite benefits gained by those accessing private education as morally indefensible. He said:
“That tax advantage allows the wealthiest in this country, indeed the very wealthiest in the globe, to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20% discount. How can this be justified?”
I agree with him, yet the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and the new Education Secretary are too weak to stand up to the independent schools lobby.
It should be easy for the Government to support our motion today, because education is about opportunity—the opportunities we give all our children to explore and develop, to achieve and thrive, and to have happy and healthy childhoods. I was lucky to attend a great local state school when the last Labour Government were transforming education across this country and when my teachers were fiercely ambitious for me and my friends, because they believed in the value and worth of each and every one of us. I want every child, in every school, in every corner of this country to benefit from a brilliant state education, supported by a Government who are ambitious for all their futures. That is why we need private schools to pay their fair share and support every child across our great local state schools to realise those ambitions. Today, the Government have a choice: they can hide behind their vested interests, or they can finally stand up for excellence for every child. I commend the motion to the House.
My mission is to make sure that every child in this country gets a fantastic education and every opportunity to make the most of their abilities. My expectation of excellence is the same whatever the type of school and wherever it is in the country. A good education is not a battle of this school versus that school—at its most basic, it means giving every child the means to find their place in the world. My job is to make sure that schools do that, and independent schools have a valuable role in delivering that.
By the Opposition’s own account, applying VAT to independent schools might deliver £1.75 billion more per year for schools. The key word in that sentence is “might”. I gently suggest that “might” could be over-optimistic, or even economically illiterate. The Government recognise that a good education is the closest thing we have to a silver bullet when it comes to making people’s lives better, which is why we are putting an extra £2 billion into our schools next year and the year after. This will be the highest real-terms spending on schools in history, totalling £58.8 billion by 2024-25. [Interruption.] I hear a few mumblings of “2010” from the Opposition Benches, so let me put that into context. When we took office from Labour, the spending was £35 billion per year. For those following the maths, that is a 68% cash increase.
Under this Government, schools will not need tax changes to receive extra money; they will not have to wait. Without that policy, they will be getting it from April this year, and even more—£2 billion, as opposed to an optimistic £1.75 billion.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. It is a shame the shadow Secretary of State did not afford me the same courtesy—I thought a debate was an exchange of ideas. What the Labour party is actually proposing is to financially penalise parents for paying to educate their children. I would have thought that would affect the number of families who could afford to keep their children in the independent sector, and lead to an influx of children from the independent into the public sector. What assessment have the Government made of how much that would cost the taxpayer in net terms? My hunch is that it would actually cost more than it would raise, and therefore not only would the policy not deliver for everyone, it would not deliver for anyone.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, showing her economic literacy in full. I will get on to explaining some of the figures.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I am very happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
This issue surely boils down to a moral argument. It is charitable status that gives independent schools their tax benefits, but what kind of charity requires a person to pay an average of £37,000 in order for it to benefit from tax breaks? Is that really a charity?
There is the huge education benefit, but I think the hon. Member may have his maths a little wrong—I do not think the average is £37,000.
We are improving state-funded education, not undermining the aspirations or choices that parents have for their children. That is important. We are delivering a world-class curriculum for all schools, not attacking world-class institutions that secure international investment and drive innovation. We are driving school improvement, not driving small schools serving dedicated religious and philosophical communities out of business. We are providing the funding to schools that they need.
I am delighted that Labour decided to include school standards as part of this debate, as our record speaks for itself. In 2010, just 68% of schools were rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding, but we have taken that to 88%—hopefully the Members opposite are still following the maths—which is a vast improvement driven by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb).
Moreover, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) should join me in praising the work of this Government. Since we took office, schools in her local authority of Sunderland have gone from 67% rated good or outstanding to 91%. Meanwhile, 97% of schools in the Leader of the Opposition’s local authority now enjoy a rating of good or outstanding—I am sure he has thanked my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton for his role in making that happen. The shadow Schools Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan), should also be grateful; when Labour was last in power, fewer than half of his local schools met that standard, but I am happy to share with the House that we have taken that dismal record and made it good—literally. Today, Portsmouth now boasts 92% of schools rated as good or outstanding. I want to take this opportunity to thank teachers, headteachers and support staff up and down the country for their incredible work over these years, as they have been the key drivers of this success. I can guarantee that we will not stop there.
Underpinning that record are improvements in phonics, where a further 24% of pupils met our expected standard in the year 1 screening. In just eight years from 2010, we brought the UK up the PISA rankings—the programme for international student assessment—from 25th to 14th in reading and from 28th to 18th in maths.
We will continue that trajectory as we build on the ambitions of the schools White Paper, which will help every child fulfil their potential by ensuring they receive the right support in the right place at the right time. This will be achieved by delivering excellent teaching for every child, high standards of curriculum, good attendance and better behaviour. [Interruption.] Somebody opposite mumbles “13 years”—I am sure that schools are delighted with the improvement I have just outlined over the past 13 years. We will also deliver targeted support for every child who needs it, making it a stronger and fairer school system.
Let us focus on the independent school sector. We are very fortunate in this country to be blessed with a variety of different schools. We have faith schools, comprehensive schools and grammar schools, to name but a few, all of which help to support an education that is right for children. The independent school sector itself is incredibly diverse. It includes large, prestigious, household names—in this House, we will all have heard of famous alumni from Eton—but there are 2,350 independent schools, and not many of them are like Eton. Reigate Grammar School, a fee-paying independent school that now charges £20,000 a year, once educated the Leader of the Opposition; like many in this category, it started as a local grammar and became independent. In fact, 14% of Labour MPs elected in 2019 attended private schools—double the UK average. I will be interested to see which of those hon. Members votes to destabilise the sector that provided the opportunities afforded to them.
As someone who did not benefit from such a prestigious educational background, I stand here focused not on the fewer than 7% of children who attend independent schools, but much more on the 93% who attend state-funded schools, as I did. As the Opposition wish to use parliamentary time on this issue, I would point out that the sector provides many benefits to the state and individuals alike. Independent schools attract a huge amount of international investment, with more than 25,000 pupils whose parents live overseas attending independent schools in the UK. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) pointed out, many could be working in our armed forces.
One of the greatest things I saw while working in the classroom, unlike those on the shadow Front Bench, was a scheme introduced under the Conservative Government by the former Minister for Children and Families, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), which provided looked-after children with scholarships and bursaries to some of the leading boarding and private schools across our country. Are schemes like that—giving those most deprived kids the very best opportunities—not under threat because of the Opposition’s dangerous ideological plans?
Absolutely. We will always focus on the people we can help. The more people we can help through a diverse school system, the better.
The independent school sector also has an international presence, exporting services through campuses in other countries. The independent sector includes many settings that serve small, dedicated faith communities, some with lower per-pupil funding than state-funded schools.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. She said that she wanted every child to have an excellent teacher, and so do I, but two thirds of teachers are planning to leave the profession in the next two years because of unmanageable workloads. What is the Government’s answer to that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. We have 460,000 teachers, which is more than we have ever had in our school system—in fact, 24,000 more. I am glad to introduce some facts to his argument.
The sector also includes special schools, where some places are state funded. That provides vital capacity for vulnerable pupils that could not easily be replaced. There are hundreds of independent special schools that provide world-leading specialist support to some of our most vulnerable children, whether that is hydrotherapy provision for children with physical disabilities; sensory experiences for children with autistic spectrum conditions or who are non-verbal; or invaluable one-to-one support for young adults with Down’s syndrome preparing to step out into the adult world.
Many hon. Members across the House will have someone in their family or know someone who benefits from those services, such as my nephew with Down’s syndrome and the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson). More than 5% of children with an education, health and care plan rely on the provision offered by an independent school. Are the Opposition suggesting that we put VAT on those fees? Hopefully not—[Interruption.] I am delighted to hear that they would not as the policy evolves.
The Opposition’s proposed tax policy would create a number of different challenges across that diverse sector and the outcome is uncertain. The more affordable schools, many of which are former grammar schools, are likely to be at greater risk from an increased tax burden, and the closure of such schools would increase inequality and reduce choice for families. Many schools, when faced with a sudden hike in costs, are likely to seek to avoid passing on the full cost to hard-pressed families. Indeed, many might choose to reduce the bursaries and scholarships that broaden access to such places instead.
Almost 160,000 pupils at Independent Schools Council schools receive some form of bursary or scholarship. For clarity, Independent Schools Council schools represent only about half of independent schools, so the number of people receiving financial support is likely to be far higher. Any independent school closures or a reduction in bursaries would only increase the pressures on the state-funded sector. At the current average cost per pupil of £6,970, the projected cost of educating in the state-funded sector all the pupils we are aware of who receive some form of scholarship or bursary would be more than £1.1 billion. That does not factor in any additional capital or workforce costs to create places for those pupils.
In fact, research undertaken by Baines Cutler shows that, in the fifth year of the Opposition’s ill-thought-through policy, the annual costs would run an annual deficit of £416 million. Yes, hon. Members heard correctly: the policy could end up costing money. That could have been a contributory factor to the last Labour Government, during their 13 years in office, armed with a calculator and the figures, not implementing such a divisive policy.
The Secretary of State referenced the Baines Cutler report. Can she clarify who were the commissioners of that report and who tends to cite its findings?
I would like to clarify that the figures that I used—160,000 pupils times £6,970—are our figures, so £1.1 billion is our calculation. The Baines Cutler report was commissioned by the independent schools sector. Of course, everybody in the sector, as in many other sectors, commissions research, but I hope that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that, because the report was commissioned, it did not have to be validated—of course, it would be. [Interruption.] If she wants to understand, it would cost £1.1 billion at the current average cost per pupil £6,970. I do believe that that is why previous Labour Governments did not implement the policy, because it would greatly undermine the benefit of any additional funding to the state sector, and it could result in Labour’s proposed financial benefit in fact being a net cost to the Exchequer.
I remind right hon. and hon. Members that two thirds of Independent Schools Council members—almost 1,000 of them—are engaged in mutually beneficial cross-sector partnerships with state-funded schools. Those schools share expertise, best practice and facilities to the benefit of children in all the schools involved. I thank my noble friend Baroness Barran, who is in the Gallery, for her work with independent schools to emphasise and grow those partnerships.
To give one example, Warwick School and King’s High School have worked together to support students to prepare for assessments and interviews to highly selective universities. An increasing number of independent schools also provide subsidised places for disadvantaged children through the Royal National Children’s SpringBoard Foundation’s broadening educational partnerships programme.
I am sure that the shadow schools Minister, the hon. Member for Portsmouth South, will be interested in my final example, which benefits teachers in his constituency—he does not appear to be that interested, but I will try. The Hampshire Physics CPD Partnership provides fully funded professional development workshops targeted at specialist and non-specialist physics teachers to support teaching at key stage 3 and 4. The partnership includes many schools and colleges in Hampshire, including UTC Portsmouth.
The proposals do not make financial sense; they do not make sense to parents and they certainly do not make sense to children in the sector. The Labour party’s policy is the politics of envy. In this Government, we do not have to level down to level up; I am not somebody who resents other people’s opportunity. As many hon. Members understand, I went to a comprehensive school in Knowsley that I could not boast about in the same way that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South does, because it sadly failed generations of children.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
I will not give way; I think I understand my school better than most.
That is why I am hugely honoured to be in this role to support all children in any education setting to get the excellent education that they deserve. I do not want to level down anybody; I want to level up everybody. Our independent sector is a small but important part of our school system. It brings valuable international investment to the UK; it serves small, dedicated faith communities; it creates special school capacity; it drives innovation; it gives parents a wider choice; and its bursaries are a valuable tool for driving social mobility. We should not undermine that.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent defence of the independent sector and its partnership work. Does she believe that Labour’s policy would also undo the fundamental principle that the UK does not tax the supply of education? Furthermore, there have been repeated references to “tax breaks” to mean simply not paying extra tax on top of the income tax that people already pay. That is a misleading description and should not be used to describe this ill-thought-out policy.
I agree with my hon. Friend that there is lots that is misleading about the way the policy has been presented, and that the benefit of education is the reason it receives tax breaks.
It is not for the Government to determine the work of parliamentary Select Committees, but the motion proposes the setting up of a new Select Committee that would take up considerable parliamentary time and resources. If I am correct, the House published an estimated cost to the taxpayer of those Committees of £417,000, at the very least, in this calendar year alone. Furthermore, there is already a Select Committee empowered to look at these issues—one which I and my fellow Ministers regularly appear in front of—the Education Committee. I have no doubt that we will hear more from members of that Committee.
Our focus should rightly remain on improving standards at all schools, so we will continue to ensure that all state-funded schools have the funding they need to make sure every child receives the best education and opportunities possible. I remind Opposition Members of the £2 billion extra next year and the year after that was awarded in the autumn statement, as well as the figure for our overall spending on schools of £58.8 billion as opposed to £35 billion in 2010. We will continue to ensure all state-funded schools have the funding they need so that all children receive the best education and opportunities possible. This proposal is the politics of envy. It is pulling the rug from under good independent schools in a weakly veiled, politically motivated, economically incoherent policy which will not help our mission to ensure that every child can reach their potential. We as the Conservative party do not level down; we focus on levelling up.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, let me say that I do not want to impose a time limit, but I urge colleagues to stick to a maximum of seven minutes per contribution.
It is a pleasure to be called so early in this debate. Since we are in the business of declaring where we went to school, let me say that I went to a comprehensive school in Barrow-in-Furness. The Secretary of State said that she went to a comprehensive school in Knowsley, but I invite her to explain what her Government are doing for more than half of the children in Knowsley who are failing their maths and English GCSEs. She is very welcome to intervene on me and explain what her Government are doing for those children in Knowsley, if she wishes. Would she like to do so?
I am happy to intervene. The hon. Lady may have heard me say that, when I was at school, 92% failed to get the minimum of four or five GCSEs. I look at those schools very regularly and, yes, that has improved massively since then, but it is still nowhere near good enough. We are very much focused on supporting those schools, on maths hubs and on introducing maths, free phonics and lots of things that will help in the early years, as well as the teaching support and the development of teachers. She is absolutely right that many in my family, including my cousins and my cousins’ kids, have been to schools in Knowsley, so like her, it is a very personal issue for me.
I am really glad to hear that the Secretary of State takes such an interest in schools in Knowsley, but in Knowsley, as in many parts of England, we have schools where children are failing to reach their potential, and that is not because of a lack of will from the teachers.
This debate is a good opportunity to pay tribute to our teachers, our teaching assistants and the parents supporting children at home, who make sure that our kids get the best education possible, as well as—if I may stray a little bit beyond the debate—the youth workers. Where we still have them, youth workers also support children’s education in an informal environment. It is an environment post covid in which, frankly, it is truly remarkable the lengths that our teachers and teaching assistants have to go to make sure that our children can access such an education.
I want to put on record my personal thanks to the headteachers cluster in the Lancaster and Morecambe area, who consistently and persistently meet me and my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris)—we are meeting them again in a few weeks’ time—to ensure that, as Members of Parliament, we are aware of the challenges that schools face in the Lancaster and Morecambe area.
However, these teachers cannot continue to shoulder the burden for the Government’s failure. I would say that the education sector is in crisis, but we have now been saying that for many years, with no active response from the Government. The Government cannot continue to pretend that they are serious about investing in schools while the vast majority of schools are facing huge cuts, in spite of growing pupil numbers and costs. In Lancashire, 520 out of 564 schools face cuts this year, with £24.3 million needed to restore real-terms per pupil funding to its level last year. The staff who work in those schools desperately want to improve schools and provide better for their pupils, but they need the Government to meet them halfway and to help them do so.
This debate is not just about one type of school, and I want to talk about rural schools. I have some small rural schools in my constituency, and I recently met Rebecca Scholz, who is the headteacher at Scorton Primary School in my constituency and Calder Vale St John Primary School. She is already struggling to make her small rural school budgets meet the needs of her pupils. Those schools do not have school halls, so they have the additional costs of hiring village halls for PE lessons. They do not have school kitchens, so they have to get school meals taxied in from schools further afield that do have kitchens. All of this puts additional costs on these small rural school budgets, and it is making it very difficult for Rebecca to ensure that these schools are sustainable.
I entirely agree with the point the hon. Lady is making about small rural schools. For many years in this House I led the cross-party campaign on fairer funding—the f40 campaign—which pushed for the needs of rural schools. Does she not agree that key to meeting that challenge is reform of the funding formula for schools, which, sadly, is not mentioned in the Opposition motion?
I am very well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s campaign, and I think there was a huge amount of sympathy for it, but his party has been in government for 13 years, so reform of the schools funding formula really does fall on his party’s shoulders. I would like to see that come from his own party.
This debate is not just about small rural schools. I have a three-form entry primary school in Lancaster that is facing cuts next year of £197 per pupil. Many such schools are obviously dealing with huge social issues as well as providing education. Schools in more deprived areas, where education can make a huge difference, are suffering an even bigger financial hit. Many of my constituents contacted me recently about the campaign to extend free school meals. There are around 800,000 children living in poverty who are deemed ineligible for free school meals. The Prime Minister was warned that pupils face a “bleak, hungry winter”, but as yet he has refused to extend free school meals.
I am equally concerned about the growth in the attainment gap, which was mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, between the most disadvantaged and the most affluent. These are not just numbers; these are children who are being left completely behind by the system, and communities will feel these costs for decades to come. Policy choices in all areas have an impact on schools. When the health sector fails, young people come to school unwell, and more often than not their mental health needs are being left unmet. When a young person’s needs are not met in any sector, schools are left to pick up the pieces and they pay the price. In these incredibly difficult contexts, teachers are understandably exhausted, and now we are seeing what is in effect a real-terms pay cut for the vast majority of teachers. Frankly, I think that is an insult after the heroic work they have done for our children.
The thing is that people know this, so the persistent problems we are seeing with the recruitment and retention of teachers should come as no shock to the Conservative party, which has made teaching an increasingly undesirable and unsustainable profession. Thirty six thousand, two hundred and sixty two—that is the number of people who left the teaching profession in 2020-21. That is 36,262 people who were overworked and underpaid to such an extent that they felt that they were not able to continue. How many teachers must leave before the Government take drastic action? We need a Government who are on the same side as teachers. To invest in teachers is to invest in students, and to invest in students is to invest in the future.
I rise more in sorrow than in anger about today’s extraordinary Opposition motion to create a new education Select Committee for the House of Commons.
I was recently elected as the Chair of the Education Committee, with I believe quite a significant amount of support among Opposition Members. I canvassed Members all across the House and spoke to them about the issues that are priorities for them. I made sure that in my campaign I was listening to Members on all sides of the House about the things they felt would make a difference to the education of children in this country and the things that fall within the remit of the Education Committee. I can count on the fingers of one hand—no, in fact, I can count on one finger—the number of Members who raised this issue as a priority for them. So I find it extraordinary that the Opposition have tabled a motion to make this the subject of an entire Select Committee all of its own, even more so given that their own members of the Education Committee are nowhere to be seen today.
I have great respect for the Opposition Members on my Select Committee, who do an excellent job in holding the Government to account and challenging on education policy issues, not least on some of the issues that the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) mentioned, such as careers information and advice. We are currently conducting an inquiry into that, which was started by the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who is on the Front Bench.
It seems extraordinary to me that, without any forewarning or any notice to the Chair of the Education Committee, the Opposition have decided to try to sideline the established mechanisms of this House and to sideline the Education Committee on this issue by creating an entirely new committee. There is absolutely no reason for that. I gently point out that the Opposition should be doing a better job of encouraging their own Committee members to engage. Sadly, I can count four Conservative members of the Education Committee in this debate, but there are none on the Opposition Benches. I suspect it is because they know that this policy is a shambles.
The net financial impact of raising the cost of independent education is likely to have a negative impact on the cost of state education, because it will drive up demand for places in a very constrained secondary sector. In my constituency right now we are pretty much full in the secondary space, and a new school is being built by the local authority at a cost of around £40 million to meet our needs. If we were to raise fee levels for the two independent schools just in the mainstream sector, King’s and RGS, the chances are that many families would no longer be able to afford to send their children to those schools, and they would be looking for places in the secondary sector—places that are not currently there. There is a failure to understand and think through the consequences of the Opposition’s proposed policy.
I detect—and in conversations I have had with Back Benchers from all parties, I heard about it—the huge pressures on childcare. That is one reason I proposed that if I were elected Chair of the Select Committee we should do an inquiry into that issue—indeed, the shadow Secretary of State welcomed the fact that we are doing such an inquiry. I did not, however, hear the same demand and pressure from people saying, “We must do something to make life more expensive for people who choose to send their children to independent schools.”
When the Opposition talk about “tax breaks”, that is a complete misnomer in this respect. The charitable status of education has existed for well over a century. Every Labour Government from 1945 has supported the principle of the charitable status of education, and Labour Members ought to be honest about what they are trying to do. They can make legitimate arguments, and say that they believe independent education is a bad thing and they want to discourage it—if they choose to have that argument, they can have it—but the net result of what they are proposing for the independent sector would be to make it more elite and out of reach for ordinary families. The big names out there would no doubt continue to thrive, with wealthy families that can afford to pay and international students—that issue has already been mentioned—but many smaller independent schools might be driven out of business, and if that were the case, the cost of meeting those places and that demand will fall on the state education sector. As the Secretary of State said, that cost is more than £6,000 per pupil on an ongoing revenue basis, and there is also capital to think about and the extra classrooms and schools that will be required to meet that need. I do not think the Opposition have done their homework in that respect.
I understand from what the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South said from a sedentary position to the Secretary of State that it is Labour’s intention to exclude the specialist independent sector from this policy, but when Labour Members look at their net revenue figure, they are looking at fees across the entire sector, including that specialist sector. I simply do not think they have done their sums. The focus of those on the Opposition Front Bench, as opposed to their Back Benchers—where are they all, frankly, in a debate of such importance to their party?—shows that this is not really about a serious policy for the school system. This is about an attempt to brand the Prime Minister and have a personal go at the leader of the Conservative party. I do not think that will wash with the great British public, and this is more about the politics of the playground than a serious schools policy.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way to Opposition Members, because they have not had the decency to approach my Committee or to speak to me as its Chair before putting down this extraordinary motion. I do not feel that I should have to give way to them during this debate.
I will continue to make the case for investment in education. As schools Minister, I was proud to be involved in negotiating the single largest increase in our schools budget on record in real terms. I am delighted that my predecessor and successor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), has secured an even bigger increase off the back of that.
The shadow Education Secretary did not appear to have read her own motion when she talked about mental health. We all agree that mental health is a huge challenge and something that needs to be addressed, but there is nothing whatsoever in the motion about mental health, or in the remit of the extraordinary new Select Committee that Labour is trying to create, that addresses that issue. Labour Members need to do their homework before they come forward with such proposals. I am sure my Committee will be happy to consider any serious proposals that come forward, but this ain’t it.
I am worried that this Government are becoming dangerously complacent about the situation in our schools. In Newham we have many bright and ambitious children who achieve so much despite all the difficulties, and I am going to talk about that today. Newham has the second highest child poverty rate in the country, but nevertheless attainment is well above the national average. We are seeing many brilliant young people going on to universities—top universities—and contributing so much to our economy and society. What a testament to the ambition of those families, to the ambition and commitment of those children and, most of all, to the commitment and ability of those teachers. However, one headteacher in my constituency told me just yesterday that she and every other headteacher she knows is either already running a deficit budget, or expects to do so, so that achievement is at risk. Let’s face it: the failures of 12 years of Tory policy are having the biggest impact on the most vulnerable individuals and families, with lifelong consequences for them, and a real cost to our economy.
Let me remind some Conservative Members what “most vulnerable” children means. This is about children going to bed hungry, in small, damp, mould-crusted flats. It is about children who are not able to learn in school because they do not have the support they need with their special educational needs or disabilities. It is about children who are vulnerable and who, in the absence of support, can sometimes be disruptive to the learning of others. When class teachers do not have specialist staff to help with those children’s individual needs, that forces them to work even harder, and the learning of all the children suffers as a result.
In Newham there is a backlog of up to 18 months for children who need an assessment for an education and health care plan. One of my constituents was told that they would have to wait two years—a completely unbearable length of time—while their child struggled at school without the support they needed. So my constituent went to family members and borrowed money to pay for a private assessment. It is just like with private healthcare—the consequences of Tory failure can be avoided, but only for those who can somehow find the money to pay their way out of the system. In many areas such as Newham where poverty is rampant, children and schools are having to do their best without specialist support or the much-needed resources attached to EHCPs. Even when a family manages to get that assessment and an EHCP is drawn up, funding falls well below what is needed to meet assessed needs. I have been told of one local case where the actual cost of meeting a child’s needs was estimated to be almost four times higher than the funding on offer for their plan, and it is the same for other social care needs.
Our schools have a massive role to play in getting children early help against gang grooming and county lines. But children’s services are so overstretched that when our schools make referrals, they tell me they are being turned away unless the situation has already escalated to the point of police involvement. That is a waste of money, if nothing else, and it is certainly a waste of my children’s lives—literally. I hope that all hon. Members will understand that waiting for police involvement means that it is often way too late to stop a child’s life spiralling out of control into further chaos and crime. Instead, schools are told they have to support needs that have little to do with learning, and they simply do not have the expertise or the resource to be able do so.
When we look at these issues, we see that of course they are about teacher shortages and crumbling school buildings, but we also need to look at the wider social and economic barriers that are so damaging to children’s learning. What about housing? In Newham, 8,363 children are without a stable home—they are in temporary accommodation. Lower quartile earnings in Newham are £1,451 a month, but the lower quartile private rent on a two-bedroom home is £1,400 a month. Someone could spend all of their earnings just on getting a roof over their head without even thinking about energy or all the other bills that are massively increasing. So, according to the Government’s own data, we have almost 3,500 families without a stable home and in temporary accommodation.
From schools, I hear about children who are effectively living in one heated room, with the whole family huddling together for an evening. Obviously, trying to do homework in those circumstances is impossible, so we have children staying at school as late as they possibly can. It is so different from when I was growing up. I can say with confidence that without the stability of my family’s council flat, I would not be standing here today. We were not having to move constantly or to travel long distances because we had yet again been kicked out of a house.
What about food? Food insecurity has tripled from pre-pandemic levels, which in Newham were appallingly high. I am hearing directly from schools about children whose one decent meal a day—possibly their only meal a day—is coming from their school lunch. Why are we not providing that? Why are the Government not providing free school meals to enable children to concentrate throughout the school day without that constant nagging hunger? This is a wealthy country—I am told. How can we justify children’s life chances being held back because their families cannot afford food?
Even though Newham’s children come from London, they face many barriers. We need to tackle all those factors if we are ever going to truly level up. Instead, the social problems get worse because of Tory failures that go way beyond their failure with the school system.
Looking at all these additional stresses and needs, we come to the fundamental issue of core funding for schools. My understanding is that more than 8% of our state schools were already in deficit before the cost of living crisis, and the pay rises needed to manage it are having to be met from existing budgets. My schools tell me that they simply cannot afford to recruit new staff. That is affecting all our children, but particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities, whose needs simply cannot be met within existing resources. Let’s face it: the situation with staffing was already difficult before the cost of living crisis. In 2020, Newham had the second highest rate of spending on secondary supply teachers. How can we expect the skilled workforce that we need to come forward from circumstances like this? How can we expect our hard-working, dedicated, professional staff to struggle on?
Earlier today the Prime Minister said:
“Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed.”
But to will the ends, he must provide the means; otherwise, those are simply empty words, signifying nothing.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), who spoke with her usual passion and great knowledge of her constituency. There are a few of us in the Chamber who cut our political teeth on, or were involved in, the 1997 general election campaign. For every problem that came before us, the Labour answer was the windfall tax. They would say, “The windfall tax will sort this, that and the other.” It seems to me that the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), and her colleagues see the motion as the educational equivalent of a windfall tax to solve all the problems, which many of us are alert to and which need to be addressed.
The money raised—this £1.7 billion—will, according to the motion, go to
“the recruitment of new teachers, additional teacher training, and careers advice and work experience for all pupils.”
In speeches, we have been told that it will address mental health, deal with SEND, underpin TAs, deliver mandatory digital skills and extend free school meals. This is the windfall tax that covers everything. This is the goose that will lay the largest golden egg in educational history.
Let me share a secret with the House: maths is not my favourite subject—please do not tell the Prime Minister—but, by my calculation, on the sums suggested divided by the number of schools in the state sector who would be recipients of that funding, that amounts to about £53,000 per school, per year. That is on the expectation that the £1.7 billion remains a continual, but some schools will get smaller, some will close and so on. It is therefore an entirely false prospectus.
I think that the shadow Secretary of State must have read in the press that her leader is thinking of having a shadow Cabinet reshuffle and scratched her head to think, “What might get me on the front page of the newspaper and to lead a debate?” May I say gently to her that it might have seemed a good idea in theory to have this debate, but the practice is not playing out.
I am a huge supporter of the Select Committee system—I happen to chair one and enjoy it—but we do not need another one to address the issues of what could be done to help education. I am sure that the Education Committee will look into it, if that is what its work programme wants to do—[Interruption.] But let me set out my stall. I will yield to no one in my support for state education in our country. I went to what Mr Blair as Prime Minister would have called a “bog-standard comprehensive” in Cardiff. Of my three children, one goes to a church primary and the others go to one of our local high schools. They are receiving excellent education from first-class teachers. I have been a governor of two state sector schools and my wife is a current school governor, because we understand entirely that education provides the keys that are going to unlock all of life’s doors.
Conservative Members believe in a meritocracy. We are far more interested in where people are going than from where they have come. The motion—this idea—is all about class envy. It is all about divide. It is all about pulling down. May I say gently to the Opposition Front-Bench team that we do not improve things that need improvement by pulling down and reducing the excellent. We should be focusing on fostering that which lots of schools already do. There is a good example in my constituency: Bryanston, which is a leading independent school, teamed up with Blandford School, sharing resources and expertise in a whole load of areas to the improvement of children and their educational experience. That is what we should be focusing on, not pulling down something that is working. The effect on global soft power from the experience of coming to the UK, which the independent sector provides for so many young people, is always overlooked when we come to this debate. It is a very important tool in our arsenal; we must not forget it. We need to focus on those important issues. Nobody in my constituency says, “You are going to make my school better by stopping that school having VAT relief and charitable status.” They want to know what the Government are going to do to make their schools better and the attainment of their kids better. They are not motivated by this narrative of envy, and it is a shame that the House is being invited to be so today.
The motion presupposes that it will be of no cost to the public purse, but a conservative estimate suggests that about 100,000 children would be taken out of the independent sector and put into the state sector. That would have a cost, as my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) indicated, on already pressured state places, particularly, although not exclusively, in the secondary sector. Bursaries and scholarships would be removed. Who benefits? Nobody, apart from a narrow class interest suggested by some Opposition Members and certainly not shared by those on the Government Benches. I do not believe it is shared in the country either.
This is an important debate on how we can fairly tax private schools to raise funding for measures that are needed to improve educational standards in the state sector. Hundreds of constituents in Liverpool, West Derby, including many educators, have contacted me about improvements they want to see and specifically on the issue of hunger in the classroom. I would like to represent those concerns in this place and speak about the difference that universal free school meals—a nutritious, free school breakfast and lunch for all children in primary and secondary state education—would make by improving children’s education, health and happiness.
Food insecurity levels have doubled since the start of 2022 and an estimated 4 million children are now going hungry in the UK. That includes many thousands in my constituency of Liverpool, West Derby, where the relative child poverty rate is significantly higher than the national average, in a city where one in three people are in food poverty. Food prices have increased by 16.4% in the year to October and healthier foods are now nearly three times more expensive than less healthy foods. That is devastating for children across the country and their families, including the many who are hungry but do not meet the Government’s eligibility criteria for free school meals. They are part of the 800,000 children nationally who are below the poverty line, yet still do not qualify.
Food poverty leads to health and life expectancy inequality, malnutrition and a host of related health problems. It affects children’s educational attainment and life chances. When asked about children coming to school hungry, 88% of teachers reported pupils being excessively tired and 84% reported that they are easily distracted. Less measurable, but no less important, is the effect on individual human dignity and social cohesion over time. As was reported by School Food Matters, nutritious school meals are linked to good mental health, wellbeing and educational attainment. Research found that over half of teachers felt that children who come to school hungry display anxiety. It is not just the hungry children themselves who are affected; half of all children say that they feel upset that some children do not have enough to eat at school, so this is also affecting children who are being fed.
Through fairer taxation, the Government could invest in a roll-out of universal free school meals. Findings from the Government’s own pilot noted improved educational attainment, with children making between four and eight weeks’ more progress in maths and English. Crucially, universal provision removes all stigma from school food and ensures all children have an equal opportunity to thrive and be healthy. The Government’s adviser, Henry Dimbleby, said:
“When children sit down to eat with friends and teachers in a civilised environment, it cements relationships, helps them to develop social skills and reinforces positive behaviour throughout the day.”
Backing that up, we heard powerful evidence at recent sittings of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee about the benefits and how this investment would more than pay for itself in the long run.
A cost-benefit analysis of universal free school meals by PwC shows the undeniable societal and economic benefits. If the Government made the investment, the core benefits over 20 years of providing universal free school meals would be £41.3 billion, compared with a total cost of £24.1 billion. The core benefits are savings on food costs, health and school spending, and increased lifetime earnings. There would also be £58.2 billion in wider economic benefits, meaning that the total benefits from an investment over 20 years would be £99.5 billion. Yes, that’s right: something that is so needed and that is morally the right thing to do would give the taxpayer a return of £100 billion. It’s a no-brainer, whatever side of the political ideological divide you sit on.
We need political leadership in the Government that guarantees and realises the right of all our children to healthy food. If we accept the universal and compulsory requirement that all children up to the age of 16 be in school, why do we break from that principle of universal care, nurturing and protection in relation to their meals during the school day? We would think it absurd if children were not provided with adequate shelter, heating, drinking water and sanitary provision while in school, so why take a different approach to the equally essential element of food?
Today, we are literally consigning our most vulnerable children to a lifetime of poor life chances, ill health and low life expectancy from a lack of suitable food. That is not why I am in this place. Surely, we are all here to change that. Political choices define our time here. I implore the Minister to make the right political decision and invest in universal free school meals for every child in this country to give them the opportunity of a long, healthy and fulfilling life. They deserve nothing less.
I start by expressing a belief that I hold and that many other Conservative Members hold, which is that education is a necessity, not a luxury. What we have today is all about ideology. It is not a pragmatic approach and it fails to understand how our school education system actually works. To stick VAT on school fees and end charitable status would have a devastating effect on the independent sector. This is very much an attack on aspiration itself.
My experience, like that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), is of going, back in the day, to what one might call a bog standard comprehensive. I became a teacher. I taught in the state system and in independent schools. For a short time, I was also the principal of a small independent school. Many parents were not super-rich people, but they all had something in common: they wanted to give their children the very best opportunities and a better life. Whatever their income and situation in life, that is what parents want for their children. Many parents make huge sacrifices—some working second jobs—to put their children through these schools, and we need to recognise that.
Today seems to be all about money, so let us look at the point that private schools actually save us money. The Daily Mail reported that they add about £16.5 billion to the economy—an alien concept to the anti-growth coalition, as we would call them—and that there are 328,000 jobs in independent education. To put that in context, that is as many as Asda, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op combined. Private schools pay £5.1 billion in tax contributions—enough for about 150,000 nurses, I believe —and save the Treasury about £4.4 billion in state-funded places. Of course, if children were not in independent schools, they would need to go to state schools. We could end up with a situation where we have 90,000 children leaving and having to be accommodated in the state system.
We have two outstanding Outwood academies in Worksop in Bassetlaw, which I represent. We have deprived areas where children are given great opportunities due to our academies programme—something else the Labour party opposed. Both schools are heavily oversubscribed. Outwood Academy Portland is being expanded, which we really welcome, but that is happening without an extra influx of people coming in from the independent sector. Imagine if, all of a sudden, all the extra kids came in from the independent sector. What would happen? It has already been mentioned: we would need to find extra school places. All that would happen is that local children would not be able to find a place in their local school. There would be far more competition for the available places, and we would need to find somewhere for those children as well.
The Opposition motion would benefit nobody. My Labour council’s local plan includes building 12,000 houses, but it does not really have any plans for infrastructure and it does not seem to know how to collect money off developers through the community infrastructure levy. We were already concerned about the impact on school places, even without Labour’s plan. If a Labour Government were to introduce what the Opposition have suggested today, it would put further pressure on people who want an outstanding academy education for their children.
Independent schools do a huge amount for our community. The Independent Schools Council’s “Celebrating Partnerships” report highlights the work of Worksop College, a large independent school in my constituency that does wonderful work with 11 local state schools. It does chemistry roadshows, park runs and all sorts of activities; I praised its work in the House to the former Minister for School Standards, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who was very kind in his remarks about it.
A report commissioned by the Independent Schools Council suggests that if charitable status were removed, many schools would be able to reclaim VAT on their capital and building works. That would benefit larger and wealthier schools more than small, single-sex junior or all-age day schools, and it would potentially mean the Treasury having to write cheques for millions of pounds. I am sure that that is not the intention behind the motion, but I am afraid that it is a possible consequence.
Approximately 200 private schools with 26,000 pupils could be forced to close, and hard-working parents on lower incomes would be hardest hit. There would be a negative effect on bursaries and scholarships. Independent schools would become the preserve of the super-rich, who would be the only people who could afford to send their children to any of them. The schools, of course, would simply fill their places, where possible, with children whose parents were paying full fees. The damage would be to aspirational parents—the ones who are trying their best and the ones whose children are on bursaries and grants.
I am sure the Opposition believe that private schools are simply for posh people who want to send their children to Hogwarts to train as wizards or whatever, but the reality is that independent schools take all different forms. It is about parental choice. Private schools also sponsor academies, which is a great way of ensuring that all children, whatever their background, get an outstanding education. Improving education for all does not have to come at the expense of others. It should be about aspiration, opportunity and partnership, not the envy, ideology and bitterness that we see on the Opposition Benches.
As I mentioned in my intervention on the shadow Secretary of State, I served on the Education Committee in the last Parliament. I had a very positive relationship with the then Chair, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who I see has now made it to Minister. With respect, I have to say that it is disappointing that the current Chair—the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who I endorsed for the position—gave such a partisan speech. I would have thought that one of the main bonuses of being a Select Committee Chair rather than a Minister was having the opportunity to hold the Government to account and question them, rather than blindly following and endorsing everything they say.
I am absolutely delighted to hold the Government to account and indeed to criticise them, as I have been known to do in the past. However, I gently say to the hon. Lady that what we are debating today has nothing to do with Government policy; it is about a proposed Opposition policy with which they want to sideline the Education Committee. That makes me angry, and I think it should make the whole Committee angry.
I do hope that the hon. Gentleman will exercise his new-found freedoms as Chair and make the full transition from parliamentary supporter of the Government to parliamentary ambassador holding them to account.
Some incredibly impressive straw men have been conjured up in this debate, including the faintly ludicrous idea that if we prevent independent schools from being charities and from being funded partly by the taxpayer, they will suddenly all close, everyone will suddenly come to the state schools and it will be a tragedy that costs our state sector so much money. What utter nonsense! The average cost of an independent school over a child’s education is £270,000, so I hardly think that parents will be running for the local comp if those schools suddenly stop having charitable status.
This year, private school fees are set to rise by 7%. If the Government’s ideas were logical, we would therefore expect a reduction in the numbers attending private schools, but what is happening? At exactly the same time that fees are rising by 7%, we are seeing no suppression of enrolment; in fact, the numbers who wish to enrol are increasing. This idea that numbers will suddenly decline if we make private schools stop being charitable institutions and start paying a fair amount just does not stand up.
I thank all the schools, teachers and school staff in my constituency. Schools do so much more than just educating children. I will briefly mention one school: Chiltern Primary School. If the Secretary of State ever visits, I hope that she will have a look at the work that Chiltern is doing. Every Thursday, it does something called Chat and Choose: parents line up and pay £1 for six items of food, which they can collect from the school, and a professional is there at the same time to advise and support them. That is an absolutely excellent example of a school doing so much to support the wider community. I put on record my thanks to Chiltern for its work.
Politics is always about priorities. Given the state of the economy, thanks to 13 years of Conservative Government, I am slightly surprised that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) chose to cite the last Prime Minister, who did not do particularly well with our economy, as someone whose recommendations we should follow. We have a choice. What will we choose and who should we choose to invest in?
In my earlier intervention I mentioned SEND, which is a real passion of mine and of the right hon. Member for Harlow. One priority that our Committee identified was the need to give teachers more training in SEND support. I was a teacher for 11 years: when I first started, I was not adequately trained to fully support all pupils with SEND. One possible use of the £1.7 billion is supporting teachers in that way. I would hope that that was a priority for whichever party was in government.
I want to mention oracy: speaking and listening, which the Schools Minister—the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), who has returned to his place after a short break—has heard me mention before. Spoken language is one of the strongest predictors of a child’s future life chances, but it is often overlooked and undervalued. I chose to prioritise it when I was a teacher by giving children opportunities to talk. I even set up a little debate club for year 6 pupils in my primary school. At the time, a parent said, “Why are you doing that in a comprehensive? That’s for the private schools.” No: debate, discussion and holding your own in a conversation should not be a skill learned just in private schools; it should be taught in all schools.
Oracy is not just about making everybody an Oxford-standard debater. It is more than that; it is about helping people with communication difficulties, supporting people to become more active citizens, and giving people social support and confidence. The Education Endowment Foundation has found evidence that oral language approaches in schools have a very high impact on pupils’ outcomes and a very low cost. In fact, six months’ additional progress can be made over a year when pupils are supported with oracy.
I do not want to take up too much of my hon. Friend’s time, but she is making an excellent point: oracy is really important. Before Christmas, I met Wirral primary school headteachers and their representatives, who stressed the financial challenges that their schools face. The things they are finding it difficult to pay for include speech therapists and mental health support for children. Does my hon. Friend agree that we cannot afford not to give schools that support, because it is essential for our young people?
I absolutely support my hon. Friend, who is a tireless champion for schools and educators.
I also want to mention social confidence. Oracy helps students to get along with others. It gives them support with so much more than just academia. It helps them to engage with democratic society and the democratic processes. I hope we will remember that when we look at our priorities, at what we value and at where money can best be spent to support the majority of people.
I do not think private schools are going to close overnight if their charitable tax status is suddenly removed. What I do think is that the money could be invested to support more pupils, and I hope that by doing that we could help every single child in the country, not just those whose parents can pay £270,000 for an elite private education.
Let me start by saying—although she may not like it—what a tremendous fan I am of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). Unfortunately, however, in this instance I think she has missed the mark. While I absolutely respect the fact that she, like me, was on the frontline of teaching in state schools across our country, dealing with some of the most disadvantaged pupils in our communities, I need to make sure that she understands people like me.
I went to an independent school because my mother got off the council estate in London through grammar school after her father, a postman who died when she was 17 years old, and her mother, a local teaching assistant, put all the money they could into giving her the very best start in life with a tutor. My father, who had failed his O-levels, went back to school to be a cleaner during the day, then took night school classes and worked his way up, through the Open University, to be the first member of my family to hold a degree. If it had not been for my lifelong-supporting stepfather, who decided to invest in me, his non-biological son, I would not have had the privileged education that I was able to receive. So to try and make out that my family, who did not have holidays, new cars, house upgrades or extensions, but who decided that they wanted to invest in my brother and me to make sure we had the very best education, were simply some super-rich family—well, that is for the birds.
Yes, we were middle-income earners, and yes, my brother and I did not face the hardships that my mother and father had had to face, but to portray in that way any parent who aspires to enable their child to go to that type of school and has the money to do so is simply wrong. I walk around Stoke-on-Trent, North, Kidsgrove and Talke meeting parents who work on the shop floors of our local ceramics manufacturers, who are cleaners in local domestic households, who are workers in microbusinesses hiring maybe two or three local people, and who choose to spend their money in schools such as Edenhurst or Newcastle-under-Lyme, because that is their right, that is their choice and that is their money—while also paying their taxes on top, which funds the state education sector. It is completely wrong to portray such people in that way.
I find it astonishing that the vast majority of Opposition Back-Bench speakers have not actually addressed the motion, which proposes the establishment of an Education Committee 2.0, with a Chair who I am sure they believe would agree with their views, and with members who would obviously have a predetermined conception of what they wanted the outcome to be and would obviously come up with the result that they wanted. When I was a teacher, we certainly did not teach children to answer questions like that in exams, because it would have been the wrong thing to do; the idea was to have the ability to look at all sides of the argument and understand it.
I find it astonishing that we are having this debate, and that Opposition Members, despite praising the current Chair of the Education Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), as the shadow Secretary of State did, are saying to him, “You are doing a good job on childcare and we like what you are doing on careers, but because we are worried that you might not just agree with our policy we are going to try and set up a side-Committee—but, by the way, none of our Education Committee members agree with us, because they have voted with their feet and not turned up for the debate.” They have not even asked the Chair of the Education Committee to put forward his views in either a public or, I assume, a private session. If minutes can be provided to prove me wrong, I will be more than happy to be shown them.
This demonstrates yet again that we are here for purely ideological reasons. The maths simply does not add up—that is why the Prime Minister is absolutely right to want more pupils to study maths up to the age of 18, and I suspect that the Labour party should be the subject of a pilot study for this scheme to make sure that we show how it works and their sums add up.
As has been explained so beautifully by other Members, the scheme will come at a cost to the taxpayer. Some private schools, though not all, will close, and therefore some pupils will need other places. In Stoke-on-Trent we have no secondary school places available to fill, so there will be a cost to the Stoke-on-Trent taxpayer, as kids will be bussed out of the local area to neighbouring schools, although it may not be clear whether they themselves will have spaces. That will put more pressure on teachers at a time when they are still recovering from the covid pandemic.
Labour seems to think that new teachers will magically appear, although they have to go through a year of training and recruitment. That is challenging not because of Conservative rule, but because the likes of Opposition Members are telling me and others, time and again, how terrible teaching is—how terrible the conditions are, how terrible the classrooms are, how terrible the children are to work with. Is it any wonder that people do not turn up and ask to be teachers, when an advert over here is telling them that teaching is the worst profession in the world to work in?
I speak as someone whose partner is a former Labour party member who fully supports what the Conservative party has been doing to raise educational standards with a knowledge-rich curriculum and strong behavioural expectations. I have seen the same in schools with Labour-supporting headteachers, such as Kensington Aldridge Academy, right at the foot of Grenfell Tower, who have done excellent work to ensure that a rigorous curriculum gives children the chance to go to university. I think that, last year alone, six to 12 students went to Oxbridge from that school in that deprived part of Kensington because of the tremendous work of—yes, those friends: obviously, I declare my interest. That shows what this Government have done, time and again, to deliver for those people.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. According to the PISA—programme for international student assessment—tables, literacy and maths skills plummeted under Labour. We went from seventh to 25th in reading and from eighth to 28th in maths, and it has taken successive Education Secretaries and hard work from Ministers to recover from that position. Does he agree that before applying their big-state, freedom-stripping, economically illiterate ideologies to education, the Opposition should first get the basics right?
I fully concur with my hon. Friend. The simple truth is this. Even the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Darren Jones), told students at one of his local private schools, Redmaids’ High School, that he did not agree with this policy. Behind closed doors, the Labour Chair of a Select Committee says one thing while Labour Front Benchers say another.
This is not just about money; it is also about jobs. It is about the caterers, cleaners and groundskeepers who will lose their jobs if these schools close, and it will not necessarily be easy for them to find jobs to replace them. It is this Conservative Government who have introduced the successful multi-academy trusts and phonics; literacy and numeracy are up; and the disadvantage gap had narrowed before the pandemic. There is £7.7 billion from the spending review, and an extra £4.4 billion from the autumn statement. The Conservatives are on the side of teachers, on the side of parents and on the side of pupils. It is a shame that the Labour party is not.
The whole argument about how we tax private schools is underpinned by a much more important question: why do so many parents choose to send their children to private schools? Some parents, particularly those whose children have complex special educational needs, feel that they have no other choice, as Government cuts in council funding mean that councils often struggle to provide the support that their children need. Others look at the sports, art, music, drama, debating skills, coding clubs and other opportunities that private schools offer, to a far greater extent than could be dreamt of by many of our state schools. They see that the pupil-teacher ratio in private schools is half that in state schools, as the Government fail year after year to meet their own teacher-training targets. They see that a private school has an on-site counsellor, when their child has been waiting months, sometimes years, to be assessed by child and adolescent mental health services and subsequently treated if they need help.
As the Government continue to let our pupils down, having failed to invest properly in covid recovery, we cannot blame parents for wanting the very best for their children. However, the Government cannot brush off criticisms of the status quo as an attack on aspiration. They know just how badly distorted the playing field in our education system is distorted.
At the root of the inequalities I have outlined is money. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the average private school fee is £6,500 more than state school funding per pupil. More than half of private schools are charities, required to operate for the public benefit, yet current case law allows private schools to decide for themselves what that public benefit is. It lets some private schools get away with the bare minimum. Others, on the other hand, are doing far more.
In October, I attended the launch of Feltham College in a neighbouring constituency. It is a new sixth form run out of Reach Academy in Feltham, which is an inspirational school founded by an inspirational man called Ed Vainker, who happens to be a constituent of mine. Reach is run in partnership with Hampton School in my constituency and Lady Eleanor Holles School, also in my constituency, as well as in partnership with Kingston University and various other partners. The two independent schools offer 28 taught periods per week across a range of subjects, particularly the sciences. The teachers from LEH and Hampton have also offered additional tutoring and coaching sessions for students at Reach who want to apply to Oxbridge or to medical school and need to go for interviews.
The partnership is producing results: students at Reach achieve the best chemistry and biology results that the school has ever had. Children and young people from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds in an area that historically has sent far too few of them into higher education are seeing the most extraordinary results. I want every private school to offer that sort of support to the state sector, not by imposing top-down solutions—as some previous Education Secretaries have attempted—but, rather, by partnering with neighbouring state schools to identify needs in the local community and to share resources and expertise effectively.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. I wholeheartedly support some of the work that she has outlined around partnerships. Does she not agree that, fundamentally, this goes to the heart of how we see education: education is not a charity but a fundamental basic right?
I agree that education is a fundamental basic right. I am about to talk about the nature of charitable status. It should not be seen as a club. Some private schools perhaps do operate in that way, but lots do not. The hon. Lady goes to the heart of my point: if we are to give private schools charitable status, they need to do much more across the board to earn and to keep that status. We should expect the level of collaboration I have outlined between Reach, Hampton and LEH. We should expect that sort of collaboration from every school with charitable status. A charity is not a club. It should not use resources to benefit only its own members, even if it occasionally waives the entry fee. If it does, the Charity Commission should have the power to revoke its charitable status.
I also believe—this point has been made by some Members—that education is a public good. Our VAT system recognises that essentials such as food and healthcare should not be subject to additional taxes. Currently, all education provided by eligible bodies, including schools, universities and providers of English as a foreign language, are exempt from VAT. That is important because it is a statement that education—however it is provided—is as much a public good as bread, eggs and cheese.
I am in politics because I am passionate about education. The importance of education was instilled in me and my sisters from a very young age. I believe that every child, no matter what their background, should be given the opportunity to excel and flourish in life, because every child has something special in them that we need to draw out.
That is why I believe, and Liberal Democrats believe, that education is an investment in our children’s future and our country’s future. We want every parent to be able to send their child to a good, local school where they can fulfil their potential. Parents want a fair deal from their local primary or secondary school. Liberal Democrats want that, too. We want a qualified mental health professional in every school; opportunities for every child, no matter their background, to take part in music, sport, drama, debating and so on every day; a recruitment and retention plan to attract the very best teachers, not to burn them out within five years. We want properly funded local councils that will tailor support to a child’s individual and complex needs, rather than parents having to go to court to secure their child’s right to support; and a hot meal for every child living in poverty.
That is what pupils need. That is what parents want. That is what Liberal Democrats will campaign for.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Like others, I am very disappointed with this motion, as it completely distracts from the real issues in our schools, where we should focus on children’s outcomes rather than be obsessed by the ideologies that have no interest in how children perform in schools or the choice that every parent should have.
Interestingly, not a single Labour Back Bencher so far has spoken in favour of this motion, which looks more like something that has been drawn up by the Opposition Treasury team rather than the Education one. As others have said, the movers of the motion seem to have completely forgotten about the existence of the Select Committee on Education, of which I am honoured to be a member. What a missed opportunity. This could have been a chance to talk about reforming our education system—it is essential that we do so, as Ministers have heard me say many times before—and what sort of reforms we would like to see.
As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for schools, learning and assessment, alongside the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), I have a lot to say on the subject. I want a state education sector that is so good that our families recognise it to be as good as or superior to independent schools. Making changes to the taxation status for independent schools would do nothing to improve the standards of state education.
We have known from previous exercises and dogma, such as the abolition of the assisted places scheme, that a Labour Government would go ahead whether or not its policy is in the interests of children. The abolition of the APS was an ideological measure intended to chip away at independent schools, and weakened the position of some. It played a part in the closure of some schools, but did nothing to improve the quality of education in this country, although it narrowed access to the independent sector for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Now Labour wants to order yet another attack.
The introduction of VAT in education will mean very quickly that an estimated 615,000 children in the independent sector may need immediate places in the state system. Beyond that, the viability of many private schools will be weakened and they will close. It is likely to lead to a disorderly exit of provision from education in this country. There is no guarantee that the measures proposed by the Opposition would raise any additional money for the Exchequer; they could well cost the DFE more money than the Treasury raises.
The families of those 615,000 children already pay taxes to support the education system, yet it costs the education system nothing to educate them. The potential burden that Labour’s proposals would impose is a risk in itself. As the Secretary of State for Education said, the average spend per pupil is £6,900. That means that it could immediately cost over £4 billion to put each one of those 615,000 children into state school. As each school closes, the VAT return diminishes, teachers and other staff are made redundant, and who pays for all of those historic buildings? Some of them require vast sums to maintain.
Competition is already pushing at some independent schools where the state offer is strong. In recent years in my own part of Hampshire, we have seen Rookesbury Park School close because of falling numbers. Nearby in Portsmouth, as the Schools Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), will know, St John’s College closed at the end of last year for the same reason. The reason behind those closures was the improved state provision by this Government. In Portsmouth, we have Charter Academy, which replaced a totally failing comprehensive. It has won national recognition as one of the finest schools in either sector. Where there have been failing educational authorities, academisation has been transformational. Hampshire has a very strong education authority. Every school in my constituency is good or outstanding. In my constituency, I have no private schools at all.
What we should be debating today is reform, not more layers of scrutiny. It will be no surprise to this House that for me, an extended school day with a broader curriculum is an absolute must. It means more freedom for teachers to teach subjects in depth and not to teach to the test for the many kinds of assessments that we currently have. It means abolishing GCSEs, which in my view stultify education. We need to recognise that secondary education is a continual process to the age of 18, and what we currently ask of children at 16 is not beneficial. Education is key to the country’s continued prosperity. It is a key driver to lift people out of poverty and it must remain the focus of any Government. It needs consensus, not dogma. This motion achieves absolutely nothing.
This is an important debate on improving school standards by changing the tax status of private schools. I will be focusing my remarks on the need to improve school standards. According to the National Education Union, 34% of children—more than 8,000 in my constituency—are living in poverty. This concerns me and it should be a concern to the Government because it is about the welfare of children. I commend the school staff in Lewisham East for all that they do to support children to grow, learn and develop. The schools in my constituency all focus not only on a child’s learning; they go over and above to meet their needs. Headteachers, teachers, assistant teachers, school governors, parent teacher associations and other volunteers are absolutely remarkable. They do so much more for children and families. In some schools, they provide food packages for families; in others they are looking at improving their green spaces and making the streets much safer. In one school that I know particularly well, they grow their own food. They generally all have such a big heart to develop their schools and support the children and their families.
Every child in Lewisham East is unique, and so is every school as they strive to do their best, but we need equality for children from poorer backgrounds, and without proper funding, school standards will not improve. According to the House of Commons Library, schools in Lewisham East have seen an 8% decrease in per-pupil funding in the last nine years. This means that headteachers have been receiving substantially less for their schools. Meanwhile, the Education Secretary has seen a 1.7% increase in block funding allocations for schools in her constituency. It is not for me to say that the Government have been prioritising the Tory shires over pupils in more urban, Labour-held seats, but the data from the House of Commons Library paints a clear picture.
The cost of food has gone up, and so has the cost of free school meals. Kevin Courtney of the NEU was right when he said:
“Teachers and support staff see the difference a healthy school dinner makes.”
When children are hungry, it is harder for them to concentrate and harder for them to reach their potential. Surely no one wishes to see or know that a child is going hungry, but it is happening and it is unacceptable. Due to this increase in cost, one school in my constituency is having to find an extra £20,000 a year out of its school budget. I anticipate that, in response, the Government will say that they have provided schools with additional funding in the last autumn statement, but from my understanding the extra funding was not for that reason. As the headteacher of a school in my constituency said:
“This will not touch the sides when we factor in our own increased energy costs, staffing costs and now having to subsidise school dinners.”
Surely the Government recognise that stretched school budgets risk lowering school standards and educational outcomes. The Government must show our country that they have a credible plan to tackle growing child poverty, to drive up standards in schools and to ensure adequate funding for free school meals. I do hope that the Government Front Benchers are listening.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Primary headteachers in Wirral I met before Christmas spoke about the problems facing special educational needs and disability provision in particular. They pointed out that there had been no increase in the banding for special schools since it was introduced in 2013, but that costs had increased considerably. They also mentioned that more children now need that provision and that schools were opening second sites, with associated additional costs. Does my hon. Friend agree that these children in particular should be getting the support they need, and that we really need a Government who will prioritise their needs?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I am pleased that she has raised the issue of SEND children. Only this morning, one of the teachers from my child’s primary school spoke to me about the increased number of SEND children coming to her school and the increased finance that is needed from the Government. It is an area that the Government keep neglecting and they must do better, because all children from all backgrounds and with all disabilities matter.
I will go further and say that the Government need to lower their threshold to allow more children to be entitled to free school meals. These are the children who really do go hungry. I grew up as a child on a free school meals and I recognise the benefit of them. Nor is it right that children from poorer backgrounds lose out on extra school activities in school and after school because their parents or carers cannot afford them. The Government must rethink this and have a plan. Labour has a plan: we will invest the money raised by ending tax breaks for private schools to improve the education and health of every child.
It is a curious motion that has been put forward today. It is an important topic, but a curious motion. I have great respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who is now chair of the Education Committee. I was on the Committee but did not have the pleasure of serving under him; I left just before he came in, but I did support him, which might upset some colleagues on these Benches. One of the reasons I supported my hon. Friend is that he is incredibly pragmatic on education policy—I am as well—which is often what is needed. He got support across the Chamber from colleagues in all the different political parties, and I think it is wrong to say that, just because he happened to disagree with the motion, that is evidence that he is not an impartial Chairman and somehow not good at his job. I am sure he is good at his job, and I take issue with the slight attack that was launched on him earlier.
It is a curious motion, which I think is why, after the first few speeches from the Opposition Benches, their speeches have meandered off the topic in the motion and gone into broader issues to do with free school meals, etc.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting point about the curiosity of the motion. Many hon. Members have spoken about the fact that the maths do not add up. The idea does not seem to be able to raise enough money—indeed, there would potentially be a loss as a result of it—yet the money has been spent in a whole variety of ways by Opposition Members. The motion states:
“There shall be a select committee, to be called the Fair Taxation of Schools and Education Standards Committee”.
The “and Education” has puzzled me a bit. I wonder whether the Labour party will stop at taxing private schools or whether it has other forms of education in its sights, such as those who pay for maths tuition, music tuition, dance lessons or football coaching? Does my hon. Friend think that Labour has those sorts of things in its sights too?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. This motion is deeply puzzling, and there are all sorts of questions like the one she has raised that have gone unanswered. We have not been helped by some of the contributions from the Opposition Benches that have increasingly strayed off the topic under discussion. Quite why the Education Committee, which is a sitting Select Committee, cannot look at this, I do not know. Why do we need to have a stand-alone Select Committee? Why would it take a year to look at this? I do not know. None of it makes any sense to me.
In terms of the impact, some of the changes proposed in the motion would lead to a number of independent schools closing, and it would not be the biggest, more established independent schools; it would be the smaller schools. There would be a consequence to this proposal. There is a legitimate debate to be had about class sizes, for example. We aspire to their being smaller, but the net result of pushing a set of policies that could lead to the closure of some independent schools would be potentially to increase class sizes, as the children who were in those schools would be in state schools. There would be a financial consequence to that.
What I take issue with is the populism and short-term politics behind this motion, which ignores the heavy lifting that is required to deal with the deeply complex issues that are rightly and understandably causing our education system to be unable to achieve its full potential.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not give way right now.
Seeking to breed this kind of antagonism between the independent sector and the state sector is really not the right thing to do. In my Ipswich constituency, the relationship between our two principal independent schools and the state schools is close and productive. There is a huge amount of mutual learning between those two independent schools and the state schools. Trying to push the notion that, somehow, evil independent schools are behind all the ills in our state sector is regressive and unhelpful. A more constructive approach would be much more forthcoming.
I attended an independent school because I had two learning disabilities: dyspraxia and dyslexia. When I was 12, I had the reading and writing age of an eight-year-old, which most people now know because I have said it repeatedly. I could not tie my shoelaces until I was 14. I continue not to be the most organised person in the world, and I am still sometimes a bit prickly about all these sorts of things.
One reason why my father fought to put me in an independent school is that he thought I would benefit from that environment. The school helped with my learning development, not because of resources but because it had the freedom and flexibility to take an approach that works for neurodiverse individuals and unconventional learners. The reality is that a lot of young people with learning disabilities end up in the independent sector. Had I stayed in the state sector, I would have cost a lot of taxpayers’ money because of my needs, because of how far behind I was and because of some of my behavioural issues. I ended up going into the independent sector, so I was not a cost to the taxpayer. Taking policy decisions that could lead to the closure of many independent schools would create significant new pressures, because a lot of young people with learning disabilities would go into the state sector.
Many children have my learning disabilities, and few go to the kind of school I attended, without which I would not have ended up where I am today. I am conscious of that, and I live with it every day. I campaign as hard as I can to try to make sure that every young person with the kind of disabilities I have has a fair crack of the whip to achieve their full potential. If I genuinely felt that closing down schools like the one I attended would achieve that, I would agree with this motion.
This motion does not achieve that. It is driven by politics and populism, not by what actually helps young people with learning disabilities. The Opposition are trying to make the point that, somehow, this motion would be a game changer for those with learning disabilities. Let us have a constructive debate, because we know from our casework and from our conversations with constituents that huge numbers of young people with learning disabilities are not getting the support they need, and a lot of that is because of funding. We need every teacher to have greater understanding of neurodiversity, and we need to make sure Ofsted rewards schools that are great at SEND and punishes schools that do not emphasise SEND and potentially even play the system by off-rolling students. We have to do all those things. We should have been having that debate.
I have previously spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester, the Chair of the Education Committee, about my annoyance with the funding formula and the fact that areas such as Suffolk do not get a fair deal when it comes to funding pupils per head of population. It is all in the data. The way in which money is allocated is opaque and makes no sense. Why should a young person with special educational needs in Suffolk or Ipswich get any less than a young child anywhere else? They should have exactly the same money as anyone else. All sorts of things can be done.
I am very free speaking when it comes to education policy, and I am all up for occasional constructive disagreements with the Government if what they are doing is not right for young people in Suffolk. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), is here, and she recently came to a special school in Ipswich.
So much of our education system is not working as it should, and many young people, including children with SEND, are being let down. I encourage a constructive debate. The Education Committee has a great platform to do that. I regretfully feel that this motion has been driven by short-term politics and not by what actually works, including for some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.
Just under a week ago, I visited Ash Trees Academy, a primary special school in Billingham, to discuss the challenges it faces in delivering quality education to children with some of the most difficult of lives—children with both physical and learning special needs. Some of them cannot speak, and others are educated while lying down.
It was great to meet the children, but their access to the full package they need is compromised by a lack of on-site facilities and appropriate staff numbers. One example is the lack of a hydrotherapy pool. Due to a lack of funding, the pool they had was in need of considerable improvement and the decision was taken to fill it in and to repurpose the space. Some children are now transported to another site for vital therapy and to enjoy the water, but there is not enough money in the school for them to have their own special vehicle. I visited the Dogs Trust a few weeks ago, and it has fantastic facilities, including hydrotherapy pools—for dogs!—yet this school for special-needs children does not have such facilities.
Ash Trees also has no medical person. The duties once undertaken by a school nurse, such as feeding youngsters by tube, now fall to classroom assistants. I am in awe of them for undertaking the training to do such a difficult task, but why should school assistants have to undertake that medical duty when schools in other areas have full-time medical staff on site? We owe it to the children to do so much better, and when the schools Minister visits my constituency, hopefully soon—he is nodding his head, because he has agreed to come—I hope he will be able to drop in at Ash Trees to see those challenges at first hand.
Parliament Week is always one of my favourite weeks of the year, when I can indulge myself by doing what I enjoy most, which is visiting schools. I am pleased to say that the majority of children I meet are happy in school. For some, it is the happiest place of their young lives, as they often come from a background of poverty and chaotic lifestyles.
I thought I was imagining that children in some schools are taller and have rosier cheeks and a level of confidence way beyond children in other schools, but I know it to be true. If not for breakfast clubs, free school meals and even snacks provided by teachers, many children would not be equipped to listen and learn in the classroom. It is to this Tory Government’s shame that around 40% of children in the north-east live in poverty, and their life chances are limited as a result.
Schools were in a dreadful state when Labour came to power in 1997, in terms of standards, buildings and resources. Do not get me wrong: I am pleased that recent Governments have built on the legacy left by the last Labour Administration, and I know that, in some places, many children are doing extremely well in good and outstanding schools, but we were never going to get from where we were in 1997 to where we are today in just 10 years. It had to be a long-term policy, so I am pleased that some progress has continued to be made.
Despite the best efforts of our teachers and other staff, not all children get what they need. Headteachers tell me that restricted budgets mean they cannot fill vacancies, or mean they are planning to make people redundant, and that they are worried about the children. Again, despite great strategies from our teachers, many children in key stage 1 in particular are further behind in their education due to the pandemic. Government interventions have had limited success.
As I worry about that, we are told that Eton College plans to open a sixth-form college in neighbouring Middlesbrough, backed by a right-wing Mayor who believes that troublemakers on Teesside should be removed to Rwanda. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) might agree, but some of those troublemakers are the product of 12 years of Tory cuts. I doubt that an elitist sixth form in our area will help to address similar young people in our community. Had schools and children’s services been supported as they ought to have been since 2010, we might not have seen a situation where Middlesbrough’s Mayor says there are so many troublemakers that they should be robbed of their right to remain in the UK.
Is there anything like equality in education? Do we have a system that is geared to the most vulnerable and to children from difficult backgrounds? Those children do attract extra funding, but I remind Conservative Members that their successive Governments, including the coalition Government with the Liberal Democrats, have shifted more and more resources towards more affluent areas and away from areas of deprivation.
That’s not true.
It is true.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not give way. You were complicit.
Ministers and their supporters claim it is fairer to allocate more funding per pupil, which bases funding considerably less on need. We are talking about the movement of wealth from the poor to the rich—from the areas where children are lucky to get breakfast to others where riding lessons and a host of other activities are delivered by parents who have the means to do so. I do not want those from more affluent backgrounds to lose their activities, but I do want youngsters from Tilery, Hardwick, Roseworth and Billingham to have a great local state school where they are supported to get a better chance in life. I know that can be achieved only if we invest in our children from the youngest possible age. I know from headteachers that the children who benefited from our Sure Start centres almost a generation ago were better equipped to learn when they arrived at school. If we are again to open up these early opportunities in some of our poverty-stricken estates, we will need to find funding. The Tories crashed the economy, so I support those on my Front Bench in their commitment to create funds by removing charitable status from private schools and from other pots where they can find that money.
I know there are parents who make sacrifices to send their children to private schools—we have heard examples of this from Conservative Members—and I admire them for it, but that is their choice. It does not mean that schools should be subsidised by the taxpayer when some state schools are shrinking or closing because they have insufficient numbers. So let us refocus our approach to funding education in this country; let us recognise that we need to fund on the basis of needs instead of numbers; let us deliver the support for our children with special needs, such as those I met at Ash Trees; and let us deliver the opportunity to allow every child to reach and even exceed their potential.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.] Don’t look so disappointed. We are having a debate on fair taxation of schools and the argument has been made many times by Conservative Members that in the event of fair taxation of schools the amount being paid by parents of pupils at independent schools would go up. On that basis, it seems to me that anyone who educates their children in the independent sector has a personal interest, and I wonder whether they should be declaring that interest before speaking in this debate.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point of order, but I feel that it is really not the right approach to interrupt a debate with a point of order from the Front Bench. If a point needed to be made, the Opposition spokesperson could make it or it could be made after the debate. The hon. Gentleman has not been here for the whole debate. I want to get on with the debate, which is only right, because many people have sat here throughout the whole debate, especially the colleague I am going to call next. So I think we will just move on. I call David Johnston.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. First things first, let me say that I went to the comprehensive school at the end of my road, which had a 21% GCSE pass rate in the years I was there. That was before the inclusion of English and maths, and had they been included, it would probably have been a school with a single-digit pass rate. I do not have any children so I am not sending any children to a private school.
I think we obsess too much about private schools in this country. They provide an excellent standard of education and that appeals to parents in not just this country, but internationally. I think some of these schools do lots to justify their charitable status whereas others do not do enough and should be doing more. I think that our leading professions should not contain a huge proportion of people who are privately educated, given that such schools educate only 7% of the country. But that is as much about those professions as it is about the schools.
So I do not stand here as a great advocate or champion of private schools, but I know that the people who have engaged in this debate have made a strong case that this policy from the Labour party would not save any money to be distributed elsewhere—it might even cost the state more than it is being charged at the moment. Sir Peter Lampl, from the social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, has said that if we want to increase the inequities inherent in the public school system, we could not devise many quicker ways of doing it than this. Many people have commented on the complications it might provide for other areas of education that are also not being charged these taxes.
I also know why the Labour party is doing this. It is doing it because it fires up Labour Members, although it does not fire them up as much as I thought given the empty Benches opposite. They think it is a way of also getting at the Prime Minister, the leader of our party. That is curious, because when we go through the history of the Labour party, we see that only three Labour leaders have won an election in the post-war period and two of them were the products of boarding schools. When we go through the key figures in the Labour party, over and again we find that they were privately educated. I am thinking of people such as Gaitskell and Foot, and the Leader of the Opposition went to a school that became a private school. So although private schools have not played any role in my life, where would the Labour party have been without the alumni of our private schools? Labour would have won even fewer elections.
We talk about this policy, but my main problem with it arises not because I am a great defender of private schools, not because it will not save us that much money, and not because it might make the problem worse or make the Labour party’s electoral history worse. My problem with this policy is that we have waited three years for education policy from the Labour party and this is what it has come up with. If we want to talk about records and 13 years of Conservative government, I will gladly stand by this party’s record on education in those 13 years. I know that the Minister of State, Department for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) is going to set it out in great detail when he sums up.
If we want to talk about records, let us talk about the Labour party’s record on education in the past three years. The Labour party wants us to forget that everyone elected on that side of the House stood on a manifesto to abolish standard assessment tests, academies and Ofsted, all of which have done a huge amount for disadvantaged children in this country. Labour Members want us to forget that when schools closed and their allies in the National Education Union said that teachers should not teach a full timetable or routinely mark work in this period, the Labour party said nothing about that. It said nothing about that when it produced a 200-point checklist for schools to reopen. Labour Members want us to forget how long it took them to say that schools are safe. Does everybody remember that? Every Front-Bench spokesperson used to say, “Come on, Leader of the Opposition, come on shadow spokespeople, say that schools are safe and that children can go back to them.” It took them so long to do so. We wait three years for policy and this is all that the Labour party can come up with. I did not believe that this was the only policy, so I went to the party’s website, because I thought that other education policies must be on there, but the website is bare. The only thing remotely relating to education is about breakfast clubs in primary schools. I support breakfast clubs in primary schools; the schools I was a governor of had them and they are very effective, but that is not a big enough policy for the whole of our education system. We have undertaken big reforms in this period and we have still face big challenges, some of which are decades old and some of them post covid. We need more than this, so I thought I would look at the Leader of the Opposition’s speech from last week. Both he and the Prime Minister set out what they wanted for the country in their speeches last week. The Prime Minister referred to education 12 times in his speech last week. Tony Blair used to say, “Education, education, education”. I counted up the number of times the Leader of the Opposition said “education” in his speech last week setting out for the country what he wanted to do. Guess how many times it appeared? The answer is: zero; it did not appear once. Not once in a speech telling the country what his priorities are and what he is going to do for the country does the word “education” appear. And zero is precisely what the Labour party has to offer the country on education.
I call the shadow Minister.
It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to conclude this debate in support of the motion in my name and the names of the shadow Education Secretary and the Leader of the Opposition.
I wish to start by saying thank you—thank you to teachers, school support staff, school leadership teams and everyone who works in schools across the country. Their job can often be a thankless one, but it has been particularly difficult in recent years. The work that they do could not be more important and I hope that they know that they have our respect, our admiration and our support.
My hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), for West Ham (Ms Brown), for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Lewisham East (Janet Daby) and for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) have articulated the importance of this debate in raising educational standards for children in England’s state schools.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood made powerful points about the value of quality teaching and the significant challenges of recruitment and retention and morale of the workforce. I know that she is a tireless champion for schools in her constituency and I thank her for her contributions today. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham spoke with her usual passion and energy about the challenges that schools in her constituency are facing and the 12 years of failure by the Tories to tackle these issues head on.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby made helpful points about his continued efforts on food poverty and the political choices that the Government could make to transform children’s lives. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle robustly challenged those on the Government Benches on the views that they have expressed today, and I thank her for her consistent work on raising issues around oracy in this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East helpfully shared issues in her area with regards to school funding and concerns about the impact that is having on the education of children in her local community.
Members of the Conservative party may be trying to airbrush their former leader out of history, but they cannot airbrush their record in Government. Over the past decade, the Conservatives have turned back the clock on education, with attainment gaps widening, teacher pay falling, SEND education broken, school buildings crumbling, and teacher recruitment and retention in crisis. This situation is not fair, it is not sustainable, and Labour will not stand for it. We believe that excellence is for everyone. Labour wants to raise educational standards across the country. We want to pay for teachers, pay for mental health support and pay for careers guidance to drive higher standards for the majority of children in all our state schools, The tax breaks that private schools enjoy must end. That is why we are asking all Members to support that ambition by establishing a time-limited, focused new Select Committee, to report by July this year, to look into how we end these tax breaks and invest that money in our nation’s schools.
Every parent wants the best for their children. We will not criticise any parent for the judgments that they make on how to do that—not now, not ever. But Labour wants to deliver the best for every child, in every school, in every corner of our country. This is simply about children’s outcomes: recruiting more excellent teachers to improve those outcomes; improving the mental health of our children to improve those outcomes; and revitalising careers guidance to improve those outcomes. While those on the Conservative Benches were busy last year each taking a turn at being the Secretary of State for Education, the Labour party was busy building a vision for the future of education. That means funding it fairly and properly.
Labour has set out how we will do that. We will use the money that is raised to drive up standards in every state school. We will do that: through a national excellence programme, recruiting thousands of new teachers; providing professional mental health support for every child; and ensuring young people leave education ready for work and ready for life, with professional careers guidance and work experience for all. As the shadow Education Secretary said earlier, this is what aspiration for our children looks like.
It all sounds absolutely fantastic, but the shadow Minister is hiding his light under a bushel. If that is not on his Labour party website and if his Leader has not mentioned education at all in his new year launch speech, how are we supposed to know about these things—telepathy?
I would expect better of the hon. Member, but I am delighted that he is already looking at the Labour party website. I can send him the membership links so that he can join the party, too.
I will make some progress.
Education is about opportunity—opportunities to learn and grow, to achieve and flourish, and to have happy and healthy childhoods. Governing is about priorities, and VAT giveaways to private schools show exactly where the Conservatives’ priorities lie. They lie not in helping every child to get a great state education, but in helping the wealthiest in society. A Labour Government would make fairer choices. They would do so by asking those with the broadest shoulders to pay their fair share.
I am incredibly grateful to the shadow Minister, who is a good man. He pointed out that some of the money raised would go into teacher recruitment. What specifically will Labour use that money on to drive up teacher recruitment? Will it be by carrying on the bursary scheme and adding more money to it—I signed off on the £28,000—or is there another system that I am not aware of that Labour thinks will work? What specifically will Labour do on recruiting teachers with this extra money?
I am very happy to send the hon. Member the document, or I will gladly meet up with him when I am campaigning in his constituency next week to make sure that he is not returned at the next election.
As I was saying, Labour would require private schools to pay business rates, as state schools already do, and to pay VAT, as our colleges already do. In these extremely difficult times, with energy bills going up and pay going down, to ask the public to subsidise a tax break for private schools is inexcusable, and we are not talking about small sums.
Yesterday’s report by openDemocracy demonstrated further where the Government’s priorities lie. It found that private schools were handed more than £157 million in Government-subsidised loans during the pandemic, under a scheme that barred state schools from applying. This included elite institutions such Charterhouse, where the Chancellor went to school, which received a £5 million loan, despite declaring £45 million of income that year.
Those on the Conservative Benches, and even the Chancellor, have recently quoted figures from the Independent Schools Council saying that Labour’s policy will cause private schools to shut, and that thousands of pupils will leave the private sector. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that those claims do not stack up. Although fees have risen significantly in the past 20 years, the proportion of pupils in private education has hardly changed.
The Education Secretary claimed earlier that the figures she cited did not come from the private school lobby, so can she be more specific? Did they come from the Treasury? If they did not, why do the Government not ask their own officials to look into this? Unfortunately, I think we all know why. It is because the Government would not like the answers they would get.
The Government’s position is not only wrong but unpopular. Recent polling shows that Labour’s plan has the country’s overwhelming support. The public are right to ask why private schools get tax breaks when state schools face impossible choices on what resources or staff members to cut, and it is not just voters who support Labour’s plans. As we have heard, many Government Members do too, even if they do not want to admit it. Let me share some quotes. In 2017, the current Minister of State, Department for Education, the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) said:
“It is not clear why private schools, many of whose costs to parents are literally in the stratosphere, should be regarded as charities. To what purpose?”
The current Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said:
“Private school fees are VAT-exempt. That tax advantage allows the wealthiest in this country, indeed the very wealthiest in the globe, to buy a prestige service that secures their children a permanent positional edge in society at an effective 20 per cent discount. How can this be justified?”
I wonder whether those right hon. Members will follow through on those words and back Labour’s motion in the Division Lobby today.
In conclusion, after 13 years of Conservative economic mismanagement, which culminated in those on the Conservative Benches crashing the economy last year, tough choices must be made to protect the public finances. But the choice facing MPs today is easy. They can choose to spend £1.7 billion on tax breaks for private schools—not our figures, but those of the respected Resolution Foundation—or they can choose to spend it on teachers, mental health support for pupils and revitalising careers advice, so that our young people can receive that support across the country. I challenge the Minister and Conservative Back Benchers to vote for the motion today to ensure that every child in every corner of the country receives a brilliant state education, because excellence should be for everyone.
To be frank, this debate has not been a triumph for the Opposition Front Bench. As my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) pointed out, no Labour MP actually spoke in favour of, or even mentioned, Labour’s motion today.
I think it is fair to say that every Member of the House wants to see high academic standards in our schools and to make sure that every child reaches their full potential. What divides us is how to achieve that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (David Johnston) powerfully exposed in his brilliant speech.
On the Government side, we believe that promoting an evidence-based approach to the teaching of reading and arithmetic in primary schools is key, and that empowering teachers to maintain good and improving pupil behaviour is essential if children are to be able to concentrate and work in a safe and calm environment. We believe that, notwithstanding the existence of Google, the curriculum should be rich in knowledge and give young people the cultural capital and cognitive skills to navigate and succeed in a modern society and economy.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is always generous. On the issue of quality and knowledge-based teaching, will he respond to my point that the Education Endowment Foundation found that teaching explicit oracy skills in schools increased children’s progress by more than six months for pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds? Is that evidence being considered by his Department?
I agree with the hon. Lady on the importance of debating, speaking and discussing issues in class. That is terribly important.
We introduced the phonics screening check in 2012, ensuring that every six-year-old is on track with their reading. In 2012, just 58% achieved the expected standard; by 2019, just before the pandemic, that figure had reached 82%. We have risen from joint 10th to joint eighth in the PIRLS—progress in international reading literacy study—survey of the reading ability of nine-year-olds, scoring our highest ever results. That success is attributed to the focus on phonics and has been driven by improvements among the least able pupils.
We changed the primary school national curriculum, improving rigour in English and driving the habit of reading for pleasure, and adopting an approach to mathematics based on the highly regarded Singapore maths curriculum. That came into force in 2014 and the new, more demanding SATs at the end of primary school, based on that new curriculum, came in in 2016. Between 2016 and 2019, before the pandemic, the proportion of 11-year-olds reaching the expected standard in maths rose from 70% to 79%, and in the TIMSS—trends in international mathematics and science study—survey of the maths ability of pupils around the world, our year 5 pupils significantly improved between 2015 and 2019.
We introduced a multiplication tables check, ensuring that every nine-year-old knows their times tables. This June, 27% achieved full marks in the test and the overall average score was 20 correct answers out of 25. The approach of the Government over the last 12 years has been about standards—raising standards in our schools. That is why the proportion of schools graded good or outstanding has risen from 68% in 2010 to 88% now.
We reformed the GCSE qualifications to make sure that we are on a par with the best-performing countries in the world. We removed the controlled assessments from most GCSEs, as Ofqual said they were less reliable than written examinations. Our reformed GCSEs are now the gold standard, the curriculum is more knowledge-rich and the assessment process is fairer and more rigorous.
When I read Labour’s key education policy document—not on the website, but report of the council of skills advisers, chaired by Lord Blunkett—I cannot see the same commitment to standards. One of Labour’s key recommendations is:
“Introducing multimodal assessments so that young people’s progress is no longer measured solely through written exams.”
Exams are key to maintaining standards and in ensuring that our qualifications are rigorous and fair. David Blunkett’s report was endorsed by the Leader of the Opposition. Will the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) take this opportunity to disown from the Front Bench that pledge in that document?
Exams are fundamental to maintaining standards and ensuring that our qualifications are rigorous and fairly awarded. Why is Labour so committed to abolishing exams? What is its policy on reading and phonics, and the phonics screening checks? Is that another test they want to replace with a multimodal assessment? What about key stage 2 SATs or the multiplication tables check? What about GCSEs and A-levels, and all the important markers of standards and checks of pupil progress? Are they all to be replaced by Labour’s multimodal assessment?
My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), the Chair of the Select Committee, made the important point that charitable status for education has been in place for over a century and that every Labour Government in that period supported that charitable status. He pointed out that Labour policy would make independent education more elite and more expensive, confined to the very rich and to overseas pupils. He also asked the key question of whether the £1.7 billion Labour claimed the policy would yield excluded the VAT that Labour has conceded will not be applied under this policy to the independent special schools catering for children with complex needs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) made the point that the maths of the proposed policies does not add up, with no account taken of potential independent school closures. In a powerful contribution, he cited a statistic not mentioned so far: that before the pandemic, the attainment gap had closed by 13% in primary schools and 9% in secondary schools.
I will not give way now, I am afraid; there is no time left.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) gave the debate the key quote that
“education is a necessity, not a luxury”.
He is right, and he was right when he said that Labour’s policy in the motion was simply about the politics of envy.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) was right to describe Labour’s education policy as divisive. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt), in a moving speech, challenged Labour’s motion for breeding
“antagonism between the independent sector and the state sector”,
which is unhelpful and does not help young people with learning difficulties.
Independent schools have long played a part in this country’s education system, allowing parents to choose the education that is right for their child. The majority of the sector is made up of small schools, including those providing education to religious communities or catering for special educational needs, and the latter provide much-needed special school and alternative provision places, which are state funded. The Government believe the state education sector can and does benefit from collaboration with the private sector.
The hon. Member for West Ham (Ms Brown) spoke about the London Borough of Newham, which is one of the poorest boroughs in the country, but thanks to this Government and the work of the former mayor of Newham, Sir Robin Wales, Newham is now one of the highest-performing education authorities in the phonics screening check and regularly appears in the top 10 local authorities for key stage 2 results in reading, writing and maths. She failed to mention Brampton Manor Academy in Newham, which last year sent 85 of its pupils to Oxbridge and 470 to Russell Group universities.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way—there is no time left, I am afraid.
The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) cited the partnership that Reach Academy Feltham has with two prominent local private schools. That is, of course, one of 7,000 such partnerships with 936 primary schools.[Official Report, 19 January 2023, Vol. 726, c. 6MC.]
The Government are committed to raising standards in our schools, and we have succeeded in raising standards in our schools, although there is more to do.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not give way.
The Government are committed to education as the key to every individual’s ambition. We want every child to fulfil their potential. This Government—despite all the competing pressures and the fiscal and public finance challenges facing this country—allocated in the autumn statement an extra £2 billion of funding for schools next year and the year after, in addition to the extra funding allocated for those two years in the 2021 spending review. With this year’s £4 billion increase and next year’s £3.5 billion increase in school funding, that is a 15% rise in just two years. By 2024-25, school funding will be at its highest ever level in real terms as well as in cash terms.
That is the focus of the Government. The Opposition may focus on private schools and on constitutional reform, but our determination is to make every local school a good school. We are concentrating on ensuring that all pupils catch up after the challenges caused by the pandemic, which is why we are spending £5 billion on tutoring and other support for pupils to help them catch up.
The Government are committed to continuing to drive and raise academic standards and standards of behaviour in our schools. That is what parents want, it is what pupils want, and it is what our economy needs. I urge the House to reject Labour’s divisive motion and, by doing so, to endorse the Government’s approach to delivering a high-quality education for all our children.