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House of Commons Hansard
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Educational Attainment: Oldham
08 February 2017
Volume 621

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

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It feels odd to have an Adjournment debate on such an historic day for our country. I suspect we are in for a long period of scrutiny, review and challenge. It is also a very important day for me personally, as it is my son’s 15th birthday. He was the reason I came into politics and he amazes me every day.

“Oldham kids can be the best in the world and they can aim as high as they want.” That was the message from Baroness Estelle Morris on the launch of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission. For many years, we saw the fragmentation of education, with a diminishing role for the local education authority. In part, that led to a deferral of responsibility for education in academies and free schools at local level. The commission reviewed this in great detail and the message was simple: for education to be the best it must become everybody’s business. Regardless of the type of school they attend, they are our children, our future and our collective responsibility. Even with a complex system of education, there was a collective desire to see standards in Oldham improve. The town needed a joined-up plan—not many different plans that might conflict with each other, but a single vision for what the future could be. Critically, this included early years, primary, secondary, further and higher education, as well as lifelong learning.

When others talk about Oldham they do not always present an accurate picture of our education system. There are some problems, and we acknowledge them in an honest and open way, but there are also reasons to be proud of what has been achieved. Since 2012, Oldham has seen a positive improvement in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected standard—up from 51% to 76%. We accept fully that there is room for improvement, but it should be recognised that progress has been made. The number of primary schools judged good or outstanding has increased from 80% to 95% in just three years. Our secondary schools must do much better, but we should acknowledge that they too have seen an improvement, with the percentage of schools judged good or outstanding increasing from 22% to 62%.

I pay tribute to parents, students, teachers, governors and the local authority for the great strides that have been made, but I am unrelenting in my ambition for that positive experience to be available to all young people in Oldham, not just the lucky ones. All our young people must be given the best possible start in life, a life which will be better but more complicated than ever before. The world is more complicated than ever before. It will be challenging for them to be in an ultra-competitive environment. They will have to be the best they can be.

The Oldham Education and Skills Commission proposed 19 recommendations that would form the foundation of the vision for a “self-improving education system”. It also brought forward two local performance indicators, which sought to meet the ambition for all young people to get on in life and do well. The first was that all national performance indicators be met at the national average or beyond by 2020. The second was that all Oldham education providers be judged as “good” or “outstanding” by Ofsted by 2020. I am sure the Minister would concur with that ambition. The commission outlined its vision in detail in a report published in 2016, and I know that the Minister has taken the time to read it. I greatly appreciate the time he spent doing that and meeting me and my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). We discussed in that meeting how we could work together on this.

The Minister will be aware that the Government have selected Oldham, along with five other towns, to be an opportunity area for social inclusion, meaning that it will share the £60 million that has been allocated. I want to be fair and balanced, because education in Oldham is so important that I am not willing to create artificial political dividing lines, if we can work together positively. However, as you would expect, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be challenging those concerned where I think a decision has been made that runs counter to the interests of young people in Oldham. I hope that with that mature relationship we can work across parties to achieve our aim.

For Oldham to do well in a sustained way, it must have the strongest possible foundations on which to build. That means clear leadership, adequate resourcing and collective responsibility—and of course that goes beyond individual schools.

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I know that this debate is about Oldham, but this issue applies across the whole of the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that educational attainment must incorporate not simply grades in academic subjects, but vocational skills, such as mechanics and joinery, and that schools must support those skills of a practical nature so that, whatever their vocation in life, young people are prepared?

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I absolutely concur. I was an apprentice myself. It gave me the chance of a career and options that I did not have when I was going through the schools system. For a lot of working class kids in particular, a technical vocation means that they can live a decent life with a well-paid job.

As we are clear in our vision for what the town can be, we must also be clear about what our town should not be. Over the last two weeks alone, we have seen the removal of a free school sponsor and, this week, the closure of the university technical college. Every school and college will see a cut to its core budget, and in many places the facilities are simply not fit for modern learning, let alone an inspiring environment fit for our young people. We are left hanging while we wait for the delayed area based review, which has left many colleges in the area not knowing what the future will be. We have not had a meaningful discussion about the future and introduction of new independent faith schools for the town either. We are also left with many unanswered questions about the failure of the Collective Spirit free school and the closure of the £9 million UTC, where not a single child gained the required GCSE results.

I commend the inclusive approach from the regional schools commissioner, but the sheer scale of the challenge is huge and the resources limited. As Vicky Beer moves on to pastures new, there is concern about whether the new commissioner will make the same effort to reach out to local MPs.

There are still many unanswered questions about the financial practices at the Collective Spirit free school, and they need to be answered, not just for sake of the school and the town, but because it might expose more fundamental weaknesses in the academy and free schools system. For a period, the school’s director was also the sole director of a trading company that provided services to that school and another one in Manchester. Collectively, it invoiced for £500,000 of services. Rules from the Department for Education and the Education Funding Agency allow connected party transactions, providing they are provided at cost.

The problem is that, providing the contractor can prove that every penny invoiced was spent, the EFA seems happy to sign it off as within scope. It does not account, however, for where the money eventually goes. For example, a school could trade to a company behind which another company with the same directors is invoicing to get the money out the door. Technically, that meets the criteria—that these limited trading companies should offer an at-cost provision—but it does not tell us how £500,000 of public money has been spent by a relatively small school.

We have asked the questions. I submitted a dossier to the regional schools commissioner last year. That came to me as a result of the bravery of whistleblowers—people who were involved in the school and were concerned about the financial practices going on there and wanted to expose them. I understand that the EFA carried out a review, but it has not been made public, and there is nothing on the website to say what the conclusion was. The public have no way of knowing, either from the EFA, the school website or Companies House which individuals and which companies benefited from those contracts.

No breakdown has been provided, and I suspect that that problem is not limited to this school alone; it is potentially a much wider problem. So today, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell), I have written to the National Audit Office in order to provide confidence that the money invoiced into those trading companies was spent on the education of the young people attending the school. When I mention a breakdown, I do not mean just a breakdown of service headings provided at the school; what we want to know is whether invoices can be provided that demonstrate that those services were provided, whether the invoices related to another company and whether connected parties were involved.

My question is this: in the interests of getting the best deal for taxpayers, will the Minister lend his support to ensuring that this review is carried out in a full and meaningful way, and that its results will be published so that the public can make up their own minds? That will lead to one of two things. Either it will prove that the whistleblowers were right and that financial practices were taking place that were not in the interests of the young people at the school; or it will prove that everything was above board, the school adhered to the rules and the money was spent appropriately. It will provide the opportunity to set the record straight, irrespective of what the result of the review turns out to be.

We have talked about the Education and Skills Commission, the issue of the Collective Spirit free school and the information that is still outstanding, so let us now move on quickly to the university technical college. This was a flagship college, with £9 million of public money spent on it. Oldham college gifted land to enable it to happen. I absolutely agree with the principle of wanting to look at things differently and try out new ideas. However, it is not acceptable that the young people who were students there have left school without the required qualifications, thus not achieving their full potential. Again, therefore, I ask the Minister for his support to make sure that if young people have been let down and have not reached their full potential—I must say that the local authorities have been extremely supportive in this matter—they are supported to re-sit their exams.

I also ask the Minister formally to sign up to the efforts and recommendations of the Oldham Education and Skills Commission. That is necessary because there is a danger, as we have seen with the free school and the UTC, of the opportunity area becoming a one-size-fits-all, centrally dictated model that is imposed on Oldham because it shows up as an area that needs intervention. If that happens out of context, and not in line with the Education and Skills Commission findings, it will really be a missed opportunity that will not reflect the significant work that has already taken place, and it will not ensure that the money already provided is used to best effect.

My strong view is that the teaching professionals, the parents, the students and the local authority can, by working together, regardless of the structure of the schools involved, genuinely transform educational outcomes for young people in Oldham, provided that they do so as part of a single plan, instead of through contradictory plans.

I also ask for the area-based review of education to be concluded and, importantly, that a democratic vote takes place in each of the local authorities involved. There is concern that the pressure is coming from central Government, and that the decision will be made by the combined authority before the mayoral elections. At the moment, the combined authority is not a directly elected body, and it is important that those who are elected by their communities have a say on the area-based review, especially if it means fundamental changes to Oldham College.

I ask that current funding arrangements, the review and the consultation take into account areas of high deprivation, particular areas with high in-migration and where a high number of youngsters and parents have English as a second language. We know that that requires additional support. I ask, too, that the former UTC building be transferred to Oldham College, to support the ageing campus on Rochdale Road and benefit Oldham College students. It cost a significant amount of public money, and could still be used to benefit Oldham children. I think that Oldham College is best placed to provide education from that building.

We should not allow a UTC to fail, thus preventing children from realising their potential, without fully understanding the reasons for that failure. I ask the Government to review the project and publish the lessons that could be learned, in order to ensure that the same thing does not happen again. I repeat my call for a review of the performance of Collective Spirit free school, and of the due diligence that was exercised in the selection of the sponsor. However, it is even more important for the financial concerns expressed by whistleblowers to be addressed in a public report.

Finally—a word that Members may be pleased to hear—I ask the Minister to consider the devolution of education to Greater Manchester. The move away from local education authorities has been detrimental to education standards in my town. When there is local control, people know where to go to get answers if schools are not performing well, and when they come together and support each other, it is like a family relationship. We are not seeing that now. What we are seeing is a fragmentation of education, which I do not believe is in the interests of the people of Oldham.

Devolution to Greater Manchester would provide a potential framework for a compromise—not a return to a local education authority arrangement that the Government clearly do not support, but a new model involving a combined authority with a directly elected Mayor. My view is really quite simple. If we trust the combined authority and the new Mayor from May onwards to get on with running the health service and social care, justice, policing, fire, transport and housing, we ought to trust them to get on with sorting out the education system in Greater Manchester. If we could do that, we could teem and ladle skills across Greater Manchester, so that areas in need of that support and capacity at local level could realise their full potential.

What I have said is not intended to be an overt criticism of the Government, although there may be differences between us. I want the Minister to take on board that there are local Members of Parliament who care passionately about Oldham and want to invest time and education to ensure that it can be the best that it can be, while also recognising that we may have to meet in the middle.

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I congratulate the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) on securing the debate. I agree with him about the historic nature of today. Let me also offer my congratulations to his son on turning 15.

As the Prime Minister has said, the Government want to create a true meritocracy in this country, and there is no more important place to start than education. I was pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Oldham area, when we were able to discuss how we could work together to raise education standards in the town, and also to discuss the Oldham Education and Skills Commission. I enjoyed reading its report.

According to the Government’s policy for school improvement, a high-performing education system must be driven by the best school leaders. Teachers and senior leaders should be free to innovate and improve standards in their own schools, driven by a genuine sense of responsibility to share knowledge with their peers, and swift and fearless in challenging failure wherever they find it. In turn, the Government have an important role to play in helping the best teachers and headteachers to lead the system.

Teaching practice, and what is taught in the classroom, should be determined solely by evidence. The Government, school leaders and teachers share responsibility for seeking to learn from those who teach in the best schools in England, and in higher performing systems internationally. One example is the Government’s reforms of primary education, and particularly the much needed drive to improve early literacy through systematic synthetic phonics and the essentials—spelling, punctuation and grammar. Another is the adoption of the south-east Asian “mastery” approach to maths teaching, with its emphasis on fluency in mental and written calculation and its refusal to allow any pupil to fall behind.

Those are critical education reforms, and they share an important characteristic with our third principle. A high-performing education system must provide opportunities for all pupils to achieve their potential, and no children should enter education with the odds already stacked against them simply because of who their family are or where they are growing up. Despite all the evidence on what makes a difference, our society remains unequal. The effects of this inequality are evident in the social mobility index, published last year by the Social Mobility Commission. Its indicators illustrated the daunting barriers faced by children in Oldham and other areas identified as coldspots for social mobility. The Government’s selection of Oldham and 11 other coldspots as opportunity areas represents an important commitment to those children.

We are making significant investments in each opportunity area, through new funding and access to additional support from the Department’s existing improvement programmes. This expenditure will, in line with our principles, be determined through rigorous assessment of specific barriers to social mobility and be based on evidence of what works in education. Our approach to removing these barriers must involve working with all schools and local partners who share our goal, with the support of the most effective system leaders. I am therefore very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the foundations he and his colleagues have laid in Oldham, and for this opportunity to confirm the Government’s commitment to Oldham and the other opportunity areas, and to discuss with the House our approach to improving education across the country.

The reforms of the last six years show that professional autonomy combined with strong accountability is delivering improvement in our education system. Academy leaders benefit from that autonomy. The latest data show that 10 of the 26 academies in Oldham have been inspected since they opened. All those with more than one inspection since opening have maintained or improved their Ofsted grades.

We want to see good schools choosing academy status as a positive choice, and we expect academies and academy sponsors to play their part in Oldham and the other opportunity areas. We know that strong sponsors with commitment, drive and the right resources can drive up standards in a school. The recent report by Sir Nick Weller on education standards in the north endorsed the role of strong sponsors and strong partnerships. There is, however, despite improvement across academy and maintained schools in Oldham, a clear need for further improvement, particularly at secondary level.

We have seen how being a multi-academy trust can provide opportunities to bring together educational expertise and develop and trial innovative new approaches. We will want to support new and existing MATs to develop in Oldham, and ensure that knowledge and approaches developed in those MATs are shared across Oldham’s schools, to drive up performance.

A school-led system is, of course, not just one in which headteachers can drive up standards in their own school, but also one that enables them to support each other, and challenge each other to improve. Oldham now has six teaching schools. All were selected because of their strong leadership and their commitment to helping partner schools in Oldham develop knowledgeable teachers and excellent teaching practices. There are also nine national leaders of education working with schools in Oldham—leaders such as Julie Hollis, headteacher of Oldham’s Blue Coat academy, a teaching school and an outstanding school with very high EBacc attainment figures.

Julie, her team, and the many other national leaders of education, senior leaders of education and national leaders of governance in Oldham and across the country are our system leaders. One of the reasons we can be confident that the opportunity areas will be successful is that we can already look with pride to their record of achievement, and their continuing appetite to support and drive improvement across the system.

We must, however, acknowledge the stark reality that, despite the hard work and achievements of our headteachers and system leaders, children growing up in Oldham and other opportunity areas are still less likely to attend an outstanding school, or to gain the qualifications they need to progress to higher education, training or the best jobs. They are still being left behind, and they start falling behind even before they start school. There can be no argument with the hon. Gentleman’s own clear and damning judgment: in his introduction to the Oldham Education and Skills Commission’s report, he stated that this

“Unfulfilled talent is criminal. It wastes…public money and blights families and communities.”

We are, therefore, as one in our recognition of the need to act, and in our commitment to supporting improvements.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we have already announced new funding for the opportunity areas, and have confirmed that additional support will be made available through national improvement programmes, such as the new teaching and leadership innovation fund. Also, £1 million from the careers and enterprise investment fund will go towards improving the quality of advice and guidance given to pupils in opportunity areas. Together, these extra Government resources, combined with the local commitment embodied by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, will make the difference that we all want to see in Oldham.

I shall refer to the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised during the debate. The academy trust has agreed with the regional schools commissioner that the Collective Spirit free school and Manchester Creative Studio School should join new multi-academy trusts. Our priority is to ensure that pupils receive high-quality education, and we are working with the trusts to ensure that there are swift improvements. I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about conflicts of interest in the trust are investigated.

The closure of Greater Manchester University Technical College was not a decision that was taken lightly. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our priority is the education and welfare of the UTC’s pupils. We are working closely with local schools and colleges to ensure that significant support from the local authority enables pupils to continue and progress in their studies. I am grateful to the new Greater Manchester UTC trustees who have stepped in to ensure that this happens, and that action is taken in the best interests of the pupils and their parents.

In conclusion, the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the challenges in Oldham. I hope that I have assured him and the House that we share his commitment to tackling those challenges. We look forward to working with him and other Members in the area, and with local partners, to transform educational attainment in Oldham.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.