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Disadvantage Gap in Schools

Volume 731: debated on Monday 17 April 2023

Closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils has been the guiding star leading all our education reforms since 2010. Central to that has been ensuring that children are taught to read in the first years of primary school using systematic phonics, the method that all the evidence says is the most effective way to teach children to read. In PIRLS, the progress in international reading literacy study of the reading ability of nine-year-olds, England rose from joint 10th to joint eighth in 2016, which is largely attributable to improvements in reading by the least able children.

The Minister paints a rosy picture, but the disadvantage gap continues to be wider than it was in 2019 and the Government have limited the uptake of education recovery programmes, such as the national tutoring programme, and failed to ensure that tutoring was always directed towards the most disadvantaged pupils. Worse still, they have provided less than a third of the funding that their own education recovery commissioner recommended. Will the Minister commit today to increasing funding to meet these urgent needs?

During the eight years prior to the pandemic, the disadvantage gap closed by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools by 2019. The hon. Lady is right that the gap widened over the course of the pandemic, which is why we introduced the national tutoring programme, providing intensive one-to-one and small group tuition to those who have fallen behind. It is why altogether we are spending £5 billion on an ambitious multi-year education recovery plan, why the recovery premium is targeted towards the most disadvantaged and why the pupil premium, introduced by the Conservative-led Government in 2010, is being increased from £2.6 billion to £2.9 billion this year.

I congratulate the Minister on having the bravery when he first entered the Department back in 2010 to narrow the disadvantage gap and stand up to the unions when it came to some big reforms in our education sector. It is just a shame that the Labour party continues to stay silent while the unions hold children’s futures to ransom over the fact that they want teachers to continue striking, no matter the disruption it will cause to children’s learning and, potentially, their ability to pass their exams in the summer. What work is being done to ensure that students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, do not have to suffer because union baron bosses such as Bolshevik Bousted and Commie Courtney seem to want to destroy the lives of the young people they serve?

Well, my hon. Friend makes an understated case for making sure that young people are in school, and it is disappointing that pay negotiations are being conducted by holding strikes. We have reissued guidance to schools to make sure that, where schools have to restrict attendance, they prioritise the most vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and, of course, children in exam years.

The Government’s failure to invest in our schools and children has been laid bare, with disadvantaged pupils now further behind their peers than at any point in the last 10 years. Given that the Minister has been in post for the vast majority of that period, what does he put this failure down to?

The hon. Gentleman obviously did not hear the answer to the original question. We had actually closed the attainment gap prior to the pandemic by 13% in primary schools and by 9% in secondary schools. Of course, the gap did widen during the pandemic, which is why we are allocating £5 billion to help children catch up. The hon. Gentleman really ought to condemn the strikes that have been happening in our schools, because the worst thing we can do to help children catch up is to close a school.

It has been revealed by openDemocracy that private schools received more than £157 million in Government loans during the pandemic. Just one of those loans has cost taxpayers over £350,000 in fees and interest, and another was received by a school that recorded a financial surplus of £13 million in the year it used the loan. Will the Minister explain why such funds were not available to state schools to help tackle the disadvantage gap?

Actually, we are spending £5 billion helping schools to tackle the disadvantage gap and help children catch up. We funded schools fully throughout the covid pandemic, and we provided over £400 billion of support to the UK economy and to families up and down the country during the covid crisis.