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Secondary School Standards: East Cleveland

Volume 660: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered secondary school education standards in East Cleveland.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I was prompted to seek this debate by recent Ofsted reports about two of the large secondary schools in East Cleveland in my constituency—Freebrough Academy in Brotton and Laurence Jackson School in Guisborough. Both were rated “inadequate” in every measure of their assessments, and that is rightly a source of huge concern for pupils, parents and teachers alike. The report on Freebrough, in particular, was damning beyond words. Pupil progress was rated “very poor”, and there had been a dramatic decline from the high standards set under the previous head, Linda Halbert. Even more seriously, leaders are unsure where pupils are for extended periods of time, and instances of bullying are not rare.

When I visited the school earlier this year, I was genuinely shocked. It was the week when the Northern Education Trust had come in to take over the management of the school, with a new headteacher, Mr Michael Robson, poised to take charge the following Monday. The scenes were like a caricature from “Grange Hill”, with gangs of pupils wandering the school during lesson time, flaunting their total lack of respect not just for teachers but for the whole concept of learning. The team from the NET has been working very hard to turn that around, and I am looking forward to visiting Freebrough again this Friday to see what progress has been made.

The situation at Laurence Jackson is not in the same league, although that is clearly a low bar. Ofsted explicitly recognised that the appointment of Mrs Juckes as headteacher last September had started the process of improvement, although at the time of the inspection in February insufficient progress had been made for anything other than an “inadequate” rating to be issued. Thankfully, the school has commissioned external advice on how best to deliver services such as special educational needs funding and the pupil premium. I hope that that will make a real difference to the quality of the offer that it makes to children in Guisborough, although things will clearly need to be kept under close review.

Both schools shine a light on the systemic challenge that we face in the north-east of England, and in the borough of Redcar and Cleveland in particular—namely, the gulf in performance between primary and secondary education outcomes. We also need to talk about why that occurs and move beyond the superficial debate that sometimes characterises this issue. In 2018, pupils in the north-east ranked second only to London for the percentage of pupils reaching the expected key stage 2 standards in reading, writing and maths. That is to say that we rank second of the nine regions of England. The think tank IPPR North specifically singled out the high performance of Redcar and Cleveland in its 2016 report “Northern schools”, highlighting how it excels at primary education and achieves results outstripping most London boroughs, which are widely regarded as the benchmark for high performance. However, by the end of key stage 4, the north-east ranks ninth out of the nine regions: we are bottom of the pile when it comes to the average Progress 8 and Attainment 8 schools. Pupils in London achieve an average of a fifth of a grade more than the average for pupils with similar starting points, but those in the north-east achieve an average of over a fifth of a grade less. Only 57% of secondary schools in the north-east are rated “good” or “outstanding”, compared with the national average of 75%.

In last December’s Ofsted annual report, fully 10% of secondary schools in the north-east were classified as “stuck”, compared with just 3% in the south-east and 2% in London. In 2015, Sir Michael Wilshaw spoke of a divided nation beyond the age of 11. That is a concept that really worries me and my constituents, and speaks volumes about the way in which social justice issues need to be addressed in this country. What makes this particularly painful is that we know it does not have to be this way. Across our country as a whole, 2 million more children are now going to schools rated “good” or “outstanding”, compared with when the Conservatives came to office nine years ago. Only 4% of schools are rated “inadequate” today, but someone who lives in East Cleveland now has about a 50% chance of going to an “inadequate” secondary school. That, of course, directly affects life chances.

The proportion of 16 to 24-year-olds not in education, employment or training stood at 15.2% across the north-east at the end of 2018—by a distance the worst statistic of any English region. When it comes to the proportion of 18-year-olds starting higher education, in 2018 the north-east had the second lowest rate at just over 29%. By contrast, in London the figure is 42%. To fix this, we need nothing less than a moral crusade not to allow the north-east to continue to spin away from the rest of the country in that fashion, like a probe receding ever further into space. The point is that behind every one of these statistics lies a child, like my own three-year-old—a young person for whom opportunities are being slammed shut almost before they become aware of them, and for whom adult life is that bit less likely to deliver the fulfilment, both economic and emotional, that it is our duty to help promote to the utmost of our ability. I know that the Minister cares very deeply about that, but we simply have to do better.

I meet my local headteachers every term to talk about their issues and concerns, and I always come away inspired by the men and women I meet, by their determination not to make excuses, and to offer blood, sweat and tears to do the right thing and deliver the best education they possibly can. The same spirit drives the great majority of the teachers they lead. I promised them that I would bring their concerns directly to Westminster and give them a voice, which brings me to the central theme I want to address today. If we are to turn this around, we need to think much less about geography and how the north-east compares with other regions, and more about the socioeconomic profile of the young people who live in the north-east. We need to end the situation whereby demography equals destiny. If my local headteachers were here, they would rightly say that we simply cannot ignore the impact of deprivation, both material and in terms of aspiration, on the challenges facing our local schools.

Redcar and Cleveland is a place where great natural beauty and pockets of affluence mingle with the grittiness of one of England’s last great centres of heavy industry. Communities like Skinningrove, Carlin How, Loftus and Liverton Mines typify the rural and coastal communities that have attracted a lot of analysis and attention from the Government and think tanks in recent years. They are places where life can be really hard. Although my constituency shares much of the geography and appearance of neighbouring North Yorkshire, which is a stone’s throw away, the reality is quite different and at times the gulf feels much more than just a couple of miles. As Professor Becky Allen has shown, if we factor in measurements of contextual value added, which truly take pupil demographics into account, we can draw a very different picture of the relative success of north-east schools.

Accounting for that deprivation is not to accept what President George W Bush memorably called

“the soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Like me, local school leaders reject that utterly for their pupils. People from Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland are no less talented than young people from elsewhere, and should settle for no less. One of the greatest challenges of life in the north-east more generally is ensuring that we have confidence in our region and our strengths and are willing to go toe to toe with other areas. The confidence of the wider region was shaken severely during the 1980s. With the decline of much traditional heavy industry, we lost a lot of our sense of place and purpose in the world. That has had lasting and complex consequences. In focusing on these issues in the context of education, the real problem is not that secondary schools in my region are worse as a group than those elsewhere but that they face particularly serious challenges in terms of the profile of the pupils they educate.

Research by Mike Treadaway for Education Datalab, which I will share with the Minister after the debate, finds that the impact of disadvantage varies according to the number of times that a pupil has been entitled to free school meals throughout their time in school. More specifically, the attainment gap of pupils who have been eligible for free school meals just once in six years is about half that of pupils who have been eligible on every occasion. Regions with lots of entrenched multigenerational disadvantage, such as Middlesbrough and Redcar and Cleveland, therefore face a particular challenge.

What does that mean for policy? First, we have to deliver a fair school funding system, which is a matter of broad agreement, and was a Conservative manifesto commitment in 2017. The north-east is not penalised as grotesquely as some parts of the country by the broken system built up over the last several decades, but I simply cannot explain or justify the scale of funding disparity between different parts of our country.

I know that establishing an objective and empirical formula is fiendishly complex, but we now have to wait until 2021 for a rational formula to be brought into full operation. I urge the Minister to ensure that her Department accepts no further delays to the roll-out of fair funding, and to go in to bat for a more generous school funding settlement in the comprehensive spending review.

Secondly, and more importantly, we need to look at how that education funding can be distributed to best effect, and I will talk about the pupil premium. Mike Treadaway, who I mentioned a moment ago, has highlighted how additional funding received by schools is the same for every pupil premium child. When he wrote his analysis in September 2017, that was £1,320 each year for primary schools and £935 for secondary schools. Surely, there is a strong case for differentiating the funding according to the percentage of time that each pupil has been eligible for free school meals, or, in other words, to focus the most resources on the most deprived, even within the pupil premium funding envelope. Treadaway has shown that that could be implemented in a way that would result in an overall funding change no larger than 5% for each region of England. That would benefit areas such as the north-east, the north-west and the west midlands, where poverty is the most densely clustered.

Thirdly—to move beyond funding—we need to align incentives properly to attract the best teaching talent and leadership to our region. Will the Minister set out how she thinks we can best address the vicious circle whereby poor Ofsted reports, such as those for Freebrough Academy and Laurence Jackson School, can make it harder to attract and retain good teachers and school leaders in the schools where they are most obviously needed?

We must have such hard-edged accountability, which is one of the reasons why I totally reject Labour’s new policy of abolishing SATs, but equally, we must ensure that the system supports teaching professionals who are brave enough to get stuck in where they are most needed. Frankly, we do not need the most inspirational people in strong schools. We need them to bring their talents to bear in the north-east of England. Whether we attract them through salary incentives, professional status, the honours system, or anything else, we must be more creative. How does the Minister think we can achieve that?

Beyond funding, my fourth priority is to adopt policies to tackle the catastrophic decline in the self-esteem and motivation of white working-class children over recent decades. That goes back to my earlier point about the lasting impact of de-industrialisation on my region. Children from other ethnic backgrounds perform far better than their white peers. Astonishingly, that happens almost regardless of whether those minority pupils are rich or poor. We must not hide away from that. My constituency is made up of about 98% white people and the predominant number of them are working-class.

Anyone who watched last year’s BBC documentary “The Mighty Redcar” will have seen what a brilliant, amusing and inspiring set of young people we have locally, some of whom, I have no doubt, will set the world on fire with their achievements in the years to come. What is the Government’s plan to engage those young people as a cohort, and to challenge the all too prevalent culture that often sets little store by academic attainment, or, at its worst, sometimes takes a perverse pride in shunning it altogether?

In particular, can we target budgets for pedagogical research into how best to reach young people from really deprived backgrounds? Can we tackle questions such as how best to teach an 11-year-old boy who comes from a home where he has never had a discipline structure? That leads to the awkward point where schools find themselves playing the role of parent or social worker, and large amounts of time and resources—both emotional and financial—have to be devoted to looking after those children. It is simply not the case that those schools inherit intakes of pupils who are all ready and well equipped to succeed at the point of entry. Consideration of how to tackle that systematically and fairly needs the closest possible engagement by Government and civil society.

I look forward to meeting the inspirational Loftus martial arts group in the next few weeks. They are a really good example of how the voluntary sector can play its part in establishing boundaries, purpose, teamwork, and all the values that are needed to succeed in life. It is important that Government play a role, too. Highlighting the problem is not to downplay what is already being achieved but to recognise that, across the north-east, we have to do more and do it better.

I would not want my speech to suggest that there are no hugely positive things under way in East Cleveland. There are schools that show just what can be achieved in our area, such as Outwood Academy Bydales in Marske, which was rated “outstanding” last year, or Nunthorpe Academy in Middlesbrough and Huntcliff School in Saltburn, which were both rated “good”.

I was genuinely delighted in particular by the £24 million announced by the Government last October for the Opportunity North East initiative, which has a specific focus on closing the gap between primary and secondary outcomes. We know that we can do it at primary level and that what we are doing works, so we need to ensure that the right lessons are learned about how to extend that culture into secondary level.

Opportunity North East came about in part because the Secretary of State for Education, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), joined me in Guisborough last spring to meet local headteachers at Prior Pursglove College. He heard directly from teaching professionals in our area about the challenges that they face, their concerns and the priorities for putting things right. As part of the package comes a very welcome £12 million, to provide more support for newly qualified teachers in the north-east. I really hope that the programme, which seems to target precisely the right issues, will make a huge difference.

With that in mind, will the reports from the executive board of Opportunity North East be made publicly available, so that we can provide scrutiny, support and challenge? If successful, will the programme be maintained so that its core elements endure beyond the initial three years that are earmarked for funding? If it is to achieve lasting good, Opportunity North East must not be simply a flash in the pan, but must be part of a new and higher baseline of long-term support. I believe that raising education standards in the north-east, and in my constituency specifically, is a generational challenge.

I pay huge tribute to Tees Valley Careers, the £3 million initiative announced last year by the excellent Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen. It is an excellent programme of careers and enterprise education, which tackles all the Gatsby benchmarks for a really inspirational and effective set of principles. The headline feature is that every young person in the Tees Valley, during their seven years in education between ages 11 to 18, will have seven meaningful employer engagement encounters, both internal and external to the learning environment. Every academic year, they will also attend at least one externally organised fair or workshop that highlights the skills needed for the workforce. That is exactly what we need. It speaks to the wider mission beyond our education system, namely, to ensure that our young people can go on to thrive in the world of employment and that they are not just educated but employable, and have the right skills, modelled for the local labour market, to ensure that their aspirations are achievable.

Last Friday, I visited Easterside Academy in Middlesbrough, in my constituency. We witnessed personal, social, health and economic education lessons for a year 6 group, who played the Game of Actual Life. It was a really thought-provoking session, which was brought in externally by expert Simon Carson, who is also a constituent of mine. It tried to focus young people growing up in one of the tougher parts of an industrial town such as Middlesbrough on what they want to do with their lives and how they can achieve that. Such programmes demonstrate exactly what we need to do. When I asked the boys, many—too many, frankly—said that they would be footballers. I absolutely hope that many go on to achieve those dreams, but we also need to ensure that realistic, understandable and equally exciting opportunities are open to them.

Measures such as that should give my constituents real hope that things will get better. As we create thousands of jobs on Teesside over the next few years, the next generation of Teessiders will be well equipped to take them. That outcome lies at the heart of my plan for my constituency, and at the very heart of my wider political philosophy. People across Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland do not want to settle for second best; they do not want to be at the bottom of league tables; and they do not want their children to be written off. All branches of Government in the north-east and here in Whitehall need to support my local secondary schools to become “good” or “outstanding”. For as long as I have the honour to represent my home constituency, that is a cause I will continue to champion until we achieve it.

It is a pleasure to serve under you this morning, Sir Henry.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) on securing this debate. I was struck by the account of his visit to Freebrough Academy, and he mentioned Laurence Jackson School. He also mentioned bullying, which is a worry and often goes hand in hand with poor discipline and poor educational outcomes in a school that is generally not succeeding in its primary responsibility, which is to get its children to a state where they can learn with sufficient discipline in the class. My hon. Friend broadened the debate to encompass the wider inequalities of which the north-east is a victim. He is right about the moral imperative—demography should not have an impact on young people’s destiny. I say frequently that it should never matter where people are born, who their parents are, who they live with or who they know; everyone should have a chance to get on in life.

We want to—we have to—change the fortunes of those living in my hon. Friend’s region. As he said, confidence is critical, and in focusing on educational outcomes it can be a difficult balance to recognise where they are poor while also building the confidence of the area. I am sure that he will have danced around that difficult issue: it is right to call out a school when it is performing badly, but the impact of doing so on the wider community can be devastating. He emphasised the poor Ofsted report, and the problem with that is that the school then might not attract the pupils it needs, despite the successful efforts of new leadership teams. School reputations are won and lost with devastating effects, while turnaround can be slow and difficult to achieve.

My hon. Friend mentioned the visit of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, who is proud of what he is starting in the north-east. As my hon. Friend said, Opportunity North East is an investment programme of £24 million over three years, which will deliver a widely shared ambition across the north-east to achieve rapid—“rapid” is important—and sustainable improvement in outcomes for young people. The ONE programme is overseen by Lord Agnew. He will focus on five clear cross-cutting challenges: raising attainment and outcomes for pupils at the end of secondary and post-16 education; recruiting and retaining great teachers for north-east schools, because another problem with a school getting a poor Ofsted report is that the teachers go elsewhere; increasing progression of pupils to university, including top institutions; and supporting young people to secure great jobs.

My hon. Friend asked if the report would be made public. I am afraid that I do not have the answer to that, but I strongly suggest that he meets Lord Agnew, because he will be impressed with his approach to such issues—Lord Agnew is a man in a hurry, and will not rest until he sees things turn around.

A key priority for the ONE programme, which I do not think my hon. Friend mentioned, is to unlock the potential of secondary schools in the region. Through the ONE Vision programme, a key part of Opportunity North East, 30 secondary schools across 11 local authorities will be partnered with high-performing school leaders and given bespoke support to raise standards. The ambition is to support those 30 schools to move towards at least an Ofsted “good” rating to improve outcomes, and to help schools sustain that improvement—sustainability matters.

The ONE Vision programme will benefit up to 25,000 young people and help them to learn the skills and knowledge to unlock their potential. I am pleased to report a total of 12 ONE Vision schools in the Tees valley, with five in Middlesbrough, and Redcar and Cleveland. Both Freebrough Academy and Laurence Jackson receive ONE Vision support. Schools have already begun to receive an analysis of need across governance, finance, teaching and learning, and leadership —leadership is so important in schools.

Officials have consulted extensively with Redcar and Cleveland Council and Middlesbrough Football Club on their programmes to help local children from those communities thrive in their transition from primary to secondary education because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland rightly pointed out, there is a stark difference—let us hope that does not result in more people wanting to be footballers, because not all of them can be. We intend to commission activities to test robustly the impact of the most promising approaches to improving that transition. My hon. Friend is probably aware of a number of other regional programmes, but I will not go into detail. Again, I thank him for his contribution to the debate and for raising so well the issues that affect his constituents.

I remember standing in this Chamber, probably eight years ago, as a Minister with responsibility for public health. We had a debate on health inequalities in the north-east, and I cited some of the figures that demonstrate the appalling health inequalities in the north-east, but I was slated in the press for doing so. I think that the quote was something like, “Public Health Minister says that everyone in the north-east smokes too much, has too much sex,” and whatever. That is a difficult tension: first, we have to recognise the problem, to face up to it and to tell the truth; but at the same time, secondly, we have to put confidence into the community, and the support it needs to change the outcomes for young people.

I also have ministerial responsibility for further education, and FE colleges do a fantastic job. Those young people who have not done well at school—for whatever reason, whether disorganised and chaotic backgrounds, a lack of discipline in the schools or any of a variety of reasons—have low aspiration and often minimal social capital. FE colleges pick those kids up and give them their second, third, fourth or fifth chance. I am pleased about that with the apprenticeship programme in particular, but a similar move has been made by many more employers, who no longer focus on qualifications but on young people’s skills. They might not have done well at school, but that is not to say that they do not have real skills that, when developed in the workplace, can mean a good career and a successful future. I hope that all such programmes will have an impact.

As I said, I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland to meet my colleague Lord Agnew, the man in a hurry—as he rightly should be. The figures are not new, and I urge my hon. Friend to look at the correlation between poor health outcomes and educational attainment. I think that he will see that close correlation, which does not stop at what qualifications people get and the job they get; it leads into later life. We need to do a great deal, but the Secretary of State is fully behind ensuring that we make a difference to my hon. Friend’s constituents. I thank him for raising this important matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.