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Access to Education: South-East Northumberland

Volume 745: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to education in south-east Northumberland.

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson, as we discuss an incredibly important issue for many in my constituency of Wansbeck, and indeed in wider south-east Northumberland. I understand that it might be complicated, because I will be mentioning the different schools, areas, towns and villages, but myself and my staff are happy to discuss the geography with the Minister and his team following the debate.

At the outset, it is important to put on the record my thanks to the school leaders, trustees and governors, the parents, the kids—everybody who has worked extremely hard in my constituency. For quite some time, the Ofsted ratings have not been where they should be, but they are on the turn for the first time in a quite a while. I want to assure the people involved in the schools in every part of the educational structure that they have my full support and sincere thanks for turning the worm with regard to qualifications in the constituency. They have all been at the forefront of turning around the fortunes of the children. For far too long, we have seen what can only be described as less than acceptable educational results.

The crux of this debate is the concept of parental choice in education—something that sounds so reasonable, but has had a disastrous impact on some children. At the 2019 general election, the Government pledged to

“continue to ensure that parents can choose the schools that best suit their children and best prepare them for the future.”

That is something that parents in south-east Northumberland will consider with utter confusion. In the time I have been a Member of Parliament, education in south-east Northumberland has largely been converted to a two-tier system from a three-tier system. I do not intend to make any comment on the effectiveness of either system—that is for another time. The change was certainly opposed by many people, but implemented after consultation, and it will not have been seen by those opposing it locally as upholding parental choice.

The upshot of the change was the closure of middle schools in some of the larger villages of south-east Northumberland. Specifically, it meant that Newbiggin-by-the-Sea and Guide Post lost their middle schools and that children who would previously have been schooled in their community are now travelling to secondary schools in neighbouring towns at a much younger age.

Parental choice in special educational settings is an incredibly important topic, too, but I do not intend to dwell on that today. That topic deserves its own debate, and is something we can return to at a future date.

I am grateful to my great and hon. Friend and I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Henderson. Is the population of my hon. Friend’s constituency sparsely distributed? Mine has got 23 separate villages, and there are probably four or five high schools, so making a choice is limited by the geographic spread of the secondary schools especially. That impacts communities like my hon. Friend’s in the north east, and mine, and those elsewhere, too. In that respect, competition between secondary schools and academies does not necessarily help parental choice in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he suggests, it is basically the semi-rural and rural villages—small villages—that have had children travelling to certain schools as feeder schools for years and years, indeed decades and decades, and choice is now being taken away from parents. That is a massive issue—basically, it is the crux of this debate we are having here today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. Has he had the experience of some entrepreneurial secondary academies excluding kids who have issues about attainment in an effort to drive up the average result for those schools? And if he has, what does he think happens to those children—those young people—who have been excluded?

Again, that is an important issue with regard to what has happened to a number of, shall we say, allegedly problematic children in education. It has proven to be a massive issue, certainly in my constituency in the past, as it probably has across the piece.

In my view, there is a reluctance among some schools and academies to continue to educate some young people. Basically, they should try to nurture them. A lot of these kids are not going to be told what to do; they have got extreme difficulties. They are living in poverty and have problems. They live in socially deprived areas, which are getting worse and worse. A lot of their parents are using food banks. A lot of these kids need somebody to put an arm around them, but a number of them, at a very young age, get kicked into touch far too early by different schools and academies, across constituencies.

I absolutely take your guidance, Mr Henderson. I have not asked to make a speech, but my hon. Friend is raising a number of issues of national importance. With your forbearance, Mr Henderson, can I make one final intervention, please?

You are very generous, Mr Henderson. We have a 90-minute debate and my hon. Friend probably has an 85-minute speech, so he will have to cut it down slightly.

I have noticed that the proportion of young people in my hon. Friend’s constituency with no qualifications at all is almost one in five; in the city of London, only 6% have no qualifications. Is that due to social class or is it partly about the density of the population in London compared with the sparsity of the population in his area? In my own constituency, 24% of all the kids have no qualifications at all when they leave school. Is that not a disgrace?

I thank my hon. Friend again for his intervention, which had a number of questions. You are an excellent Chair, Mr Henderson, but there are only a few people here in Westminster Hall. [Interruption.] Ah, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has just arrived.

It is really important to recognise the situation that my hon. Friend described, which is part of what I wanted to discuss here today. This issue is about giving all children equal opportunity and equal choice in schools that their parents went to or where their friends up the street are going to. Children in the same street are going to different schools.

This issue is all about trying to better the educational lives of young people in our constituencies. It is difficult. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth is very similar to mine: both have areas with high populations and lots of little areas on the outskirts with much lower populations, and that presents problems. Regardless of party politics, parental choice in education is an incredibly reasonable ambition, but until all parents are able to exercise parental choice it will remain only an ambition.

In recent years, my office has been dealing with an increasing number of cases relating to children who are not able to access their school of choice. That is not because they have sought to access schools in distant communities where they do not have any ties—indeed, as I mentioned before, the schools they are now unable to access are the ones their parents and grandparents attended. If someone was at one school, the next school used to follow; it was a generational thing. But that has been smashed to pieces by the new rules that have come into place for pupil allocation numbers, or PAN.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate. He and I are often in debates in Westminster Hall on issues of interest to him and me as well. Really well done on bringing this forward.

The issue of education is no different in south-east Northumberland and my constituency of Strangford, although this debate relates to south-east Northumberland. Does the hon. Member agree that access to high-quality education must be automatic—in other words, available to everyone? Should not central Government assist local councils in areas with additional needs by providing more teachers? Furthermore, classroom aids and assistants are essential in getting as many children into mainstream education as possible. I often say that education is vital for our children. If we get them educated, the future is open to them to achieve their many goals and dreams.

What the hon. Gentleman says is so true: this is about proper, real and good education. In my constituency, we have seen a number of schools turn the corner—they are now rated good, rather than the unwelcome ratings from Ofsted. That has focused parents’ minds. Instead of thinking that their kids should go to another school, they now want them to go to the school that is now rated good or better and that hopefully will improve further in the coming years.

Everybody should want their children to be part of the best potential educational facilities where the best results are obtained, but also in a really welcoming environment. I mentioned before that as a schoolboy I was at Ashington High School, which is now Ashington Academy. Two large cohorts used to be bused into Ashington High School from Pegswood, which is about two miles away; when my two sons attended the school, they experienced exactly the same. As recently as 2018, 100% of the 19 children leaving Pegswood Primary School, just one and a half or two miles away, were admitted to Ashington Academy, and that was the way it had been for generations. Last year, however, 24 children left the school at the end of year 6, but only 14 were admitted to Ashington Academy. Nine found their way to a different town altogether, six or seven miles away, and one went to the Blyth Academy—even further afield. We can see what has happened there. In the years in between, the number going to Ashington Academy has steadily reduced, with the destination of those not able to get a place varying greatly.

Pegswood Primary School is marginally closer to the King Edward VI School in Morpeth, known as KEVI. [Interruption.] I can see the Minister looking at a map. However, the system there still includes middle schools and the school is regularly oversubscribed. That means that this very sought-after school simply does not provide an appropriate opportunity for those kids to access education.

The reality of the situation is year groups and friendships are split up as children travel further to attend a suitable school. The same issue is in play at Bedlington Academy. In my office, we have been dealing with cases involving children from North Blyth, Cambois, Choppington, Guide Post and Stakeford who all have been unable to obtain a place at the school. This was their natural school.

We have spent many hours seeking a solution for a girl living in North Blyth. For those unfamiliar with the geography of the area, North Blyth is a small community on the north shore of the River Blyth, looking on to the town that shares its name, with the river running in between. The girl has gone through a primary school that was formerly a feeder school to both Bedlington Academy and its predecessor Bedlingtonshire Community High School. By any reasonable measure, given that the girl cannot conceivably cross the river, her closest secondary school is Bedlington Academy, but she has not been able to gain a place there. Her parents do not wish her to attend her next nearest school, which is a faith school. As such, she is out of education, awaiting a place at the academy. These are the issues that are important to families and children in their early stages.

We have spent a lot of time trying to help a kid from Stakeford who, again, having gone through the academy’s former feeder schools, has been unable to obtain a place. He is an incredibly bright young fella, but he is six months out of any formal educational setting, and we cannot just continue. One of the reasons why the debate is happening is to ask the Minister for some sort of support in south-east Northumberland. The boy’s next nearest school is the oversubscribed Ashington Academy, so he is forced to choose from options that are, again, further afield. The two children are not alone; indeed, we are aware that Bedlington Academy is oversubscribed for the next academic year by more than 20 pupils.

I previously alluded to former feeder schools. In 2020, the schools admissions criteria of both Ashington and Bedlington academies, both run by the North East Learning Trust, were amended. Rather than using feeder schools in their over-subscription criteria, they changed to using the distance from the school as the determining factor. Under usual circumstances, that could be seen at first glance as a reasonable change and one that is entirely legal under the legislation. It should be noted, however, that it was against the then advice of the local educational authority—Northumberland County Council —as was North East Learning Trust’s decision to cut the number of places available each year in both their academies.

There are more issues at play in the local area that cause problems. Ashington and Bedlington are towns containing two secondary schools. In Ashington, there was traditionally a split down the middle of the town that decided which schoolchildren attended which school: one side was the Church of England, the other the Ashington Academy. Children from the surrounding villages were split between the two schools, with those from Newbiggin and Lynemouth attending one and those from Pegswood, Linton, Ellington and Ulgham the other. The change in oversubscription criteria alone would have made little difference, but combined with different outcomes for the children, there is a swell in the number of pupils seeking to attend Ashington Academy.

Ashington Academy is at the centre of the town. Its results, as I have mentioned twice already, are very much on the increase, and therefore more people want to go there from the semi-urban areas and from Ashington itself. Every child in Ashington, regardless of where they live, lives closer to Ashington Academy than a child from Pegswood or the other villages. Pupils who would have travelled to Ashington Academy from Pegswood, Linton and Ellington now have fewer options, because people in Ashington town who perhaps would have gone to the other school live closer, and that means the admission criteria is in their favour.

Again, though there are two schools in Bedlington, the traditional split between them is slightly more complex due to one of them being a Catholic academy, but parents from wider Bedlingtonshire increasingly find that parental choice is unavailable to them, too. Children in Stakeford, Choppington, Guide Post, East and West Sleekburn, Cambois and North Blyth are at a disadvantage in attending their closest secondary school because they live too far away. Perversely, though I am not aware of any cases yet, there will come a time when even children living in Bedlington could find attending their closest non-faith secondary school difficult, with parts of Blyth closer in distance to the school than parts of Bedlington.

There is some positive news for those wishing to attend the Ashington Academy next year, as the school has been able to increase admissions to ensure that all those who have chosen it as their first choice can get in. We have made a little bit of progress thanks to Lesley Powell and her team at the at the North East Learning Trust. It does not help those who have been forced out of the traditional school progression in previous years nor, unless something can be sorted, will it help anyone in the future.

Bedlington Academy, however, has not had such luxuries. The school operates in a purpose-built facility that is restricted due to size. There are simply very few options for it to take a similar approach without building work, and obviously building work means more investment into the academy, something that the North East Learning Trust has been seeking. However, that has not been agreed by the education authority.

The data from the local authority for children in the Bedlington schooling system shows that the problem is likely to subside in the coming years. People believe that in the coming years it might change for the better, but that does not take into account any other factors. The progress made in recent years by Ashington and Bedlington academies is absolutely remarkable—their reputations have been so transformed that parents are desperate to get their children into the schools. Regardless of any other factors, the schools are likely to continue to be oversubscribed and children from more distant villages, for whom previously these were the appropriate schools, being split up from their peers and pushed into secondary schools that are even further away than the Ashington and Bedlington academies.

As the MP for the area for more than a decade, I have deliberately sought not to interfere in planning issues and I have no formal role in the process. By and large, that has been a sensible decision, but I have been told on multiple occasions that the explosion of house building in the constituency will have no impact on local services. Specifically, I have been told that there is no issue with school places and I have been shown figure after figure that supposedly proves that. However, with the benefit of hindsight, that does not appear to have been correct.

There is no wonder that local people are angry with the failure of local services to keep up. It is they and their children who are forced to deal with the consequences. The role of the local authority in all this is severely weakened by the academisation of so many schools in the area. Where once it would have had the responsibility to act to ensure fairness, it is now left to pick up the pieces. The warning that Northumberland County Council officers made to NELT in 2020 were not heeded and they have no powers to do anything in response. That is a huge difficulty. Part of the academy chain, the North East Learning Trust, is setting the rules. It has been agreed that it is not doing anything illegal, and the county council advises it that that should not be the case. It is not listening to the evidence from the county council. We have kids falling through the cracks. Nobody has done anything wrong; it is just not working for a number of young people, and it is set to get worse. Where once a local authority would have the responsibility to act to ensure fairness, it is now left to pick up the pieces.

Council officers have concluded that the trust’s change in admission policy disrupted long-established educational pathways, causing much confusion. Students and their families are left upset and uncertain. They report that students are being forced to go to schools outside their communities and away from long-standing friends, often involving unacceptably long journeys. I understand that council officials have met with the North East Learning Trust on an annual basis to try to convince them that the distance criteria are unfair and causing hardship. They are sometimes able to, in their words, “wrestle” some additional places in order to assist some students, but the distance criteria continue to disadvantage many, especially those in the villages in the former catchment areas that are furthest away.

Since 2010, austerity has ravaged parts of my constituency. In some areas, child poverty has gone through the roof. Schools clearly have not escaped that, with funding cuts being patched up by staff commitment. They remain shining beacons of opportunity in our communities, but for too many they are now unable to be accessed. Opportunity must be there for everyone.

I want to end by posing a number of questions to the Minister. Does the Minister understand that the changes made by the stroke of a pen to decades of settled school progression is incredibly hard for a community to take? Does he agree that any system where parental choice is possible for people in Ashington, but less so for those in the villages around it, is unfair? Does he agree that it is unfair that parental choice for some parents in Bedlingtonshire now amounts to choosing a school devoted to a faith to which they do not belong, or a school in a community where they have no connections at all? Does the Minister agree that additional funding to Bedlington Academy to increase its capacity appears to be the only real option? Finally, does he agree that more rigorous checks on the impact of development are needed, and that they should be revisited year on year, so that the students—the kids—are first, second and third?

Since there are no other Members that I can see who wish to speak, I will leave the Opposition spokesman to respond.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Henderson. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell).

I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on securing this very important debate about access to education in his constituency and across south-east Northumberland. The issues he raised in his speech will resonate with Members of Parliament across the country in relation to their own communities. He speaks with passion and eloquence about the difficulties faced by children, their families and schools in his region. I pay tribute to him for his passion in speaking up for the needs of children and young people in his constituency and the quality of their education. He has focused on parental choice and engagement, recognising that barriers to learning and engagement are having a real impact. There are consequences of structural and other policy changes within our public services and education system on opportunity and equality. He speaks with a deep knowledge of the circumstances in his local area, and what has resulted from how changes have been made.

The reality is that children, students, teachers and parents in south-east Northumberland and across the country have been let down in cumulative ways by the many failures of the Conservative Government over the last 14 years, in our schools as well as in our infrastructure. Councils and their budgets have also been stripped to the bone, which has reduced their capacity and resilience.

My hon. Friend raised the concerning issue of parents and children not getting the schools of their choice. I think we all recognise that parental choice in education is important. As my hon. Friend set out in relation to the case studies he highlighted, issues can arise when year groups and friendships are split up, and children sometimes have to travel much further just to attend school. It is concerning to hear of students in his constituency who have been left out of education because of a lack of choice. I know that the Minister will be sympathetic to some of the challenges that have been outlined, and will give the Government’s response on what can be done for those students.

Let me turn to the main areas of concern for my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck. Because of fragment-ation in admission policymaking, some schools have policies that effectively can prioritise high-achieving students and exclude disadvantaged pupils. It is important to ensure that there is more democratic control and oversight over the admissions system. That is why Labour wants to require all schools, including academies, to co-operate with their local authorities on pupil admissions and place planning, and ensuring fairer access and greater certainty for children and their families. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on that; I am sure that there are points he will want to raise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck also discussed, extremely effectively, other issues that affect access to education in south-east Northumberland. He referred to the difficulties faced by students with special educational needs. We know that the system isn’t working, and he set out the impact on families of not getting the support that they need. Issues around special educational needs and disabilities need to be a much greater priority for the Government. In all our constituencies, the system is beyond breaking point. Too many families face an uphill battle for the support their children need. It is often a battle that must be fought multiple times across a child’s school life—for support in primary school, to find the right secondary school and ensure that support is in place, and for places and support in further or higher education.

That creates huge pressures on the system, as we have seen across Northumberland and throughout the country. In councils across the country, SEND has been cited as contributing to the issuing of section 114 notices. Local authorities are struggling to balance their budgets, with reduced resilience in their finances for all sorts of reasons. Indeed, more is coming to light about the impact on council finances of the Budget of the former Prime Minister, who was in office for just over 40 days.

What has the Government’s response been? A review of SEND provision was announced in 2019 but delayed three times, and much of the SEND and alternative provision improvement plan will not come into effect until next year—six years after it was announced. The Minister may want to enlighten us as to whether any of that will be brought forward. It is desperately needed in all our communities.

Let me say a few words on child poverty, which my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck highlighted alongside the cost of living crisis. The impact of child poverty on access to education in south-east Northumberland and across the country should concern us all. The challenges that children face at home do not stop at the school gates, and the extent of poverty in the north-east is appalling. The impact of that is demonstrated in the fact that some leave school without any qualifications at all.

Indeed, in the north-east we have seen the steepest rise in child poverty anywhere in the UK: almost 190,000 babies, children and young people now live below the poverty line. We hear about dedicated people across our education system going above and beyond every day for our children—for those who do not have books to read, pens to draw with or enough food in their bellies when they go to school. Of course, it is the Government’s role to break down those barriers, but their decisions often make the barriers higher. The previous Labour Government were laser-focused on tackling child poverty, and the next Labour Government will be too.

We also know about the challenges of persistent absence in our schools. Across the autumn and spring terms, more than one in five children were persistently absent from school—more than double the number just five years ago. The Education Secretary continues to claim that absence is her No. 1 priority, but in the north-east there has been a huge increase in the number of children missing days of education: between 2016 and 2022, there was a 169% increase in the number of children in Northumberland missing half their lessons, and the figures are starker yet in Sunderland, Newcastle and County Durham. It is just not good enough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck also raised the devastating impact of school funding cuts in his constituency. Official figures show that, thanks to the Conservatives, per-pupil spending in schools will recover to 2010 levels only in 2024-25. Those are 14 lost years. If the Minister is not familiar with those official figures, he may want to look at them, because that is the case. I have heard from school students in my constituency who have been left without a maths teacher for an entire year, as teachers are leaving the profession. Young people told me last week that, due to teacher shortages, English class sizes have doubled, because classes have been combined, and they take place in the school hall.

I want to say a word about access to post-16 education, because the decline of accessibility in education under the Conservatives is not just limited to schools. Under their watch, apprenticeship starts have plummeted by more than 200,000. In the north-east, starts have fallen by 45%, and in Wansbeck by almost 40%, since 2010. Schools and colleges seem to be an afterthought, but they will be at the heart of the next Labour Government’s mission to break down barriers to opportunity at every stage. We will recruit 6,500 more teachers across our schools, because the shortage of teachers is impacting the way schools are able to recruit, provide subjects to ensure a wide curriculum, and expand their offers. To create opportunity, we will recruit 1,000 new careers advisers and introduce two weeks’ work experience, which will be vital in bridging the gap between education and employment. That is so important for the quality of education that all young people receive.

The Labour party wants high and rising standards in all our schools and across all our communities, so that every child everywhere gets the chance to thrive and benefit from the opportunities that flow when they have access to the best education available. That must apply not just to some schools and some children, but to every child in every community.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his speech and for outlining the issues in his constituency, which are reflected in constituencies across the country. That is why the next Labour Government will be focused on breaking down barriers to opportunity in south-east Northumberland and across the country.

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Henderson. It is an auspicious day: I believe it is your maiden chairing of Westminster Hall, and it is a privilege for us all to be part of it.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) on his passionate and comprehensive remarks about access to education in his area. The Government are committed to ensuring that every child in the country has a first-class education and every opportunity to make the most of their abilities. We are also committed to ensuring fair access to a good school place for every child, including the most vulnerable. That is why we have taken steps to ensure that schools allocate places in a clear, fair and objective way.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, all state-funded schools, including academies, are required to comply with the school admissions code. In 2021, a new code came into effect, which aims to improve access to school for vulnerable children and to reduce any gaps in their education. The latest data available show that the admissions system is working well. Nationally, in 2023, 94% of parents received an offer of a place at one of their top three preferences for secondary schools, and 98% an offer at one of the top three preferences for primary schools. That matches 2022, so we are maintaining that high level.

Anyone who thinks a school’s admission arrangements are unlawful or unfair can object to the schools adjudicator. The adjudicator’s decision is legally binding. If a school fails to meet its statutory duties, it can be directed to do so by the Secretary of State. I understand that the hon. Gentleman and his constituents will be concerned when children and young people are unable to attend the parents’ preferred choice of local school. The Department works closely with local authorities and admissions authorities on those matters.

Overall in 2023, in Northumberland 99% of parents received an offer at one of their top three preferences for secondary, and 93% were offered their first preference. That compares with 94% nationally for top three and 82.5% for first preference. So, the Northumberland rates are above the national average. As he will know, academy trusts are their own admissions authority, but we do expect local authorities and schools, academy trusts and diocesan authorities to work together, to ensure there is a co-ordinated approach, which helps local authorities to meet the duty on place sufficiency.

I do, though, recognise the frustration of parents and carers living in south-east Northumberland, who may now be less sure of their child’s chance of accessing a place at their school of choice, due to the academy’s change of admissions criteria in 2020, which considers distance from the academy rather than attendance at specific feeder schools, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identified.

Distance is not an uncommon criterion; in fact it is very commonly used for admissions. It does ensure that children living close to the school can access their local school and avoid travelling longer distances. Data provided by the local authority indicate that the number of year 7 pupils in the area will decrease over the current forecast period, up to 2029. To provide wider background for colleagues, there is a general effect going on in the demography of the country. It is not the same everywhere; there are different patterns in different communities.

There has been a bulge—not the most elegant term—of pupils coming through primary school who are now going to secondary school. The secondary school will initially grow, and primary numbers overall will tend to come down somewhat. Over time, that effect will work its way through secondary school as well. The long and the short of that is to say that one would expect that in year 7 admissions those numbers will change over the years.

The local authority is reporting that there are sufficient physical places to meet demand. I do accept that, in some cases, those would be places lower down in preference, due to established patterns of travel, the over-subscription criteria of some schools, or where a school is continuing its improvement journey. We will do all we can to speed up that improvement, so that there is genuine choice in local areas.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to reflect on and respond to some specific points, some of which I have covered in my remarks already. I would say overall on school choice, all parents want the best for their children. In any system where there is school choice, not quite everybody gets their first, and that is a by-product of that choice. As was the policy of the previous Government prior to 2010, we also believe that parents having that choice to rank their preferred schools in order carries great benefits, including for families and children themselves.

The hon. Member asked specifically about housing development. Local authorities make projections of birth rates and the expected effect of rates of housing development, depending on the type of housing, how many families with children there are likely to be and the likely age of those children. I am sure that his authority in Northumberland will do that as well.

The hon. Member referred to PANs, and schools can and do change PANs over time. He is right to identify that in the particular case that we are talking about today, those admission numbers were reduced. That was part of the school improvement plan to give greater headroom. As he rightly said, that improvement has been happening in those schools and we have been seeing better results. I gather that the trust has also been allowing some admission over the PAN, which has been of some assistance.

The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), took the debate into wider areas beyond just south-east Northumberland, which gives me an opportunity to respond to some of those points, so I am grateful to her. She mentioned having to provide for school choice, and I agree entirely. That is why we have created over a million new places in the school system since 2010, specifically to make sure not only that there are adequate numbers, but that school choice is facilitated. That stands in contrast to the 100,000 that were cut in the years leading up to 2010. There is now the highest funding that there has been in schools.

The hon. Lady spoke about attendance, and she is right to identify that we have an issue with school absence, and particularly persistent absence. By the way, we share that issue with most other countries in the world. We certainly share it with the other countries in the United Kingdom, including where other political parties are in control, but we see this much more broadly. During covid, there was an adverse impact on some people—not just directly connected with covid, but in its aftermath—and that has been difficult to work through. That is very understandable and no one is blaming parents for it, but some attitudes to the threshold at which a child should stay home from school if they are under the weather have moved a bit. We are trying to change those attitudes back to where we were pre-covid, and there has been progress. If we look at the autumn term that just finished, absence was markedly lower than it was in the autumn term a year before, but we know there is further to go and we will continue to work on that.

The hon. Lady also mentioned wider questions around society, income levels and the effect on children. She will know that we have extended eligibility for free school meals much more widely than the previous Government did. When her party was in government, one in six children received free school meals, but it is now one in three. That comes at a time when the number of children in workless households has come down markedly—by 600,000 since 2010—and at a time when the proportion of those in work who are on low pay, as a result of the national living wage, has come down very significantly as well. We have also invested heavily in breakfast clubs, holiday activities, food funds and more.

We have made five major extensions to early years and childcare entitlement, and there is a sixth very big extension on its way. In higher education, the opportunities for people from lower income backgrounds to attend university are greater than they have ever been.

The hon. Lady even touched on apprenticeships, which I was surprised about. Apprenticeships have been totally overhauled and reformed. We have modern apprenticeships designed by employers with proper end assessments. We have introduced T-levels with a very substantial, industrial work placement at the centre of them, with English, maths and digital and more hours in college. Again, that is designed and certified by employers. Those are materially increasing the life chances of children taking vocational and academic routes.

We see the results in such things as the PISA—programme for international student assessment—comparisons of international performance in education. In the period from 1997 to 2010, although ostensibly results domestically looked like they were improving, on the international comparisons we were coming down. Since 2010, we have come back up—

I do not propose to come back on all the points that the Minister has made, but the poverty and the challenges of the cost of living crisis and the sustained impact of austerity are having a huge impact on children and families. The impact has been cumulative over many years. Apprenticeship numbers have been dropping since 2017, with the impact of the levy that was implemented, and the engagement of small and medium-sized enterprises with apprenticeships has dropped by 49% since 2016. Those are official figures. Does he agree that it is important, in terms of a good-quality education, that we look at the sustained engagement of employers and tackle the barriers? It is important to recognise that they exist rather than pretending that there is not a problem.

When the Labour party was in government, there were many people on apprenticeships who, when asked in a survey about their apprenticeship, did not know that they were on an apprenticeship. That is the change that we have made. Apprenticeships now have proper quality. They are designed by employers. They have a minimum length and minimum time in college. The apprenticeship levy is a landmark reform that underpins that. It gets rid of the free rider problem, which has forever been an issue throughout industry and investment in training, and we now have a most brilliant generation of apprentices coming through.

Up to 70% of trades and occupations are available on an apprenticeship, including the teaching degree apprenticeship. Those are fantastic achievements and I hope that the hon. Lady’s party will turn their backs on what they seem to be saying, which is that they are going to cut the number of apprenticeships and not commit to that system going forward.

But we digress, and I wish to come back to the hon. Member for Wansbeck and thank him again for bringing this important matter to the Floor of Westminster Hall. I thank all those who have contributed. The vast majority of secondary schools in south-east Northumberland are part of strong academy trusts. They provide a good standard of education. Where there are improvements still to be made, we work closely with schools, academy trusts and local authorities to provide support and challenge to ensure that standards are raised. Ashington Academy became a sponsored academy after being judged “inadequate” by Ofsted. It was judged “good” at its first inspection as an academy in 2022 and now performs significantly higher than the national average, therefore improving the life chances of its students.

I want to express my sincere thanks to all those working to secure strong outcomes for children and young people, including the provision of high-quality school places in Northumberland and across our country. My officials will continue to monitor place planning issues in the local area and will engage with the hon. Gentleman’s local authority and academy trusts to ensure that there is fair access to good school places, which is something that he, I and all of us here care passionately about.

Very briefly—thank you, Mr Henderson. Again, I thank everybody who has made a contribution. The points have been well made here. We are talking about children. Like most if not all MPs, I want to see children in my constituency and across the UK being given the best possible opportunities—the same opportunities that people have up and down the length and breadth of the country. I feel that that is probably not the case in my constituency now.

I will fight until the day I am no longer an MP, and after that, to make sure that we look after these kids. We live in a very impoverished area, and it has an impact; my hon. Friends the Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) and for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) both mentioned the desperate impact of poverty in our regions. The schools that I mentioned are mainly in very socially deprived areas. Parents deserve the absolute best that can be achieved for our children, but I do not think that that is happening.

It is about academies and academisation versus the state schools. On the whole, the academies are bartering to get more finance from local authorities so that they can increase pupil allocation numbers—more buildings, for example. I think that there is a bit of bartering going on. Local authorities are basically thinking, “Well, it’s an academy. They’re on their own. They should be able to accommodate this.” It is the people in the middle who are suffering as a consequence: the kids and the parents. It is probably the same story up and down the country. We have to get local authorities and academies to bang their heads together so that all kids can get equal opportunities, for heaven’s sake!

I want to say a massive thank you to the teaching staff at each of the schools. Whether schools are “inadequate”, “requires improvement”, “good” or “outstanding”, the work that teachers are doing in them, certainly in my constituency, is absolutely brilliant. I have been to every single school and spoken to the teachers. They are doing a remarkable job in the current circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered access to education in south-east Northumberland.

Sitting suspended.