Following concerns raised by parents, headteachers and school governors, Sharon secured a Westminster Hall debate on school funding in the North East and the Government's inaction to support schools in the region.
Read the full debate on Hansard here.
You can read Sharon's opening speech below.
Mrs Sharon Hodgson (Washington and Sunderland West) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered school funding in the north-east of England.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Betts. I am very pleased to have secured this important debate, albeit on the second last day that Parliament is sitting in this Session. I know the subject of the debate has made many of my constituents very concerned, as well as those of my fellow MPs from across the north-east who, I am pleased to say, are in attendance today in some numbers and those who unfortunately could not be here. They include my fellow Sunderland MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott) and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson). My right hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr Campbell), who has raised concerns with the Minister following a meeting he had with headteachers in his area, is also concerned about the effect on his constituency. He asked me to convey his apologies, as he really wanted to be here but had to be elsewhere.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop), who has done a lot of work over recent months to raise awareness of our collective concerns about the Government’s negligent approach to schools in our region. I have to add, Mr Betts, that he will be sorely missed when he steps down from this place next week, both by us, his regional colleagues, and, I know, his constituents. I am thrilled to see him in his place today.
Labour Members are passionate advocates for the education of children and young people. It is safe to say that “Education, education, education” is a mantra that we still believe in, yet sadly we have seen this Government ride roughshod over our education system and our local schools, by putting them in an unprecedented position. The Government have not only failed to support our schools; they have made cuts that are fundamentally detrimental to the very viability of some schools.
In my contribution this morning, I will set out why that approach to education is so damaging and why there must be an urgent rethink by Ministers. To do this, I will look at three areas: the national situation; how it is affecting schools in my constituency and the north-east; and, finally, how that approach to our education system is affecting the very nature of our schools, whose purpose is to educate our children and address societal issues, such as child poverty and social mobility.
Before I even get to the crux of why I called this debate, perhaps I can already predict what the Minister will say in response. He will probably say, as the Prime Minister said just a few weeks ago, that this Government have protected the schools budget. However, he knows as well as I do that that is not actually the case, because the real issue is the failure to recognise that our schools are facing real-terms cuts, not cash cuts. It is deeply disingenuous of the Government to say that they have protected school budgets. I suppose it is like the Government paying public sector workers the same as they paid them seven years ago and then saying that they have protected their salaries. Oh, hang on a minute—they have done that as well.
These real-terms cuts are mainly down to inflation, but also four other things: the increases in the cost of employers’ contribution to national insurance and pensions; the abolition of the education services grant to local authorities and academies, which has reduced funding by £600 million; the cost of annual pay awards to teachers, which is set to increase by 4.4% by 2020; and, finally, the impact that the apprenticeship levy will have on maintained schools that take on apprentices. Much of this would not be a problem if the Government were not overseeing static funding for our schools, whereby these real-terms cuts now range from between 6.5% and 8%.
On top of all this, there are growing concerns about what the new schools funding formula will do to schools’ budgets and to staff retention and the schools estate, which is in dire need of an uplift. We might easily come to the conclusion that what we are seeing is the complete mismanagement and neglect of our education system—a perfect storm, if you like.
Instead of coming to terms with those issues, we have seen this Government shove their heads in the sand and carry on regardless, ignoring what many in society—from MPs across the House to teachers and parents themselves—are calling for, which is support for our education system to ensure that our children succeed in life. As the Public Accounts Committee recently stated in its report on school cuts,
“the Government does not seem to understand the pressures that schools are already under.”
I completely agree with that, and I feel frustrated that Ministers are continually ignoring the concerns of a wide cross-section of society on this matter.
School leaders, who know their budgets the most, were surveyed by the National Association of Head Teachers, with 72% saying that their budgets will be untenable by 2019-20. That is not surprising when the National Audit Office has set out that the Department for Education expects schools to make £3 billion of savings a year by 2019-20. It is safe to say that this £3 billion cut—which is what it is, rather than a saving—as well as the funding pressures that schools face and the lack of action to support them through all these difficulties, is leading to headteachers having to make impossible decisions, some of which will ultimately impact negatively on pupils and their education, and all because of what the Minister is doing, or not doing, as the case may be.
This sorry state of affairs that our schools find themselves in is nothing to do with efficiencies; it is all about impoverishing our schools. Shamefully, this approach will hit children living in the poorest areas the most, such as in parts of my constituency and those of my fellow north-east MPs from across the House. We all have deprived communities in our constituencies. That means that more and more children will be held back in life, when we should be supporting them to achieve social mobility and to achieve their full potential.
As I stated at the beginning of my contribution, I know that this is an issue that many of my constituents and teachers in my constituency are concerned about. That is not surprising, when the total budget cuts by 2019 across the city of Sunderland are expected to be over £16 million, which means an average cut of £470 in per-pupil spend and a loss of 439 teachers across the borough of Sunderland.
In my constituency, the worst hit school is Rickleton Primary School, which will see a budget cut of nearly £150,000. That is well above the average cut for primary schools nationally, which is estimated at around £103,000, which is still a huge cut. The headteacher of Rickleton Primary School, Mr Lofthouse, set out clearly in an email to me, which I have sent on to the Secretary of State for Education, what those funding pressures will mean for his school, from potential staff redundancies to the impact on his pupils’ education, and it is not only Mr Lofthouse. Many other headteachers across Sunderland have expressed similarly grave concerns. Those concerns were reflected in a meeting I held in Sunderland recently with around 30 headteachers and school governors, who all agreed that our schools were at a crisis point. That led me to securing this debate today.
The worries of those headteachers and school governors are genuine and showed just how concerned they were for the education of the next generation. In all my 12 years as an MP, I have never been in such a meeting, with headteachers expressing concerns of such gravity. If the Minister had been at that meeting, he would have had his eyes truly opened to the extent of his actions and the gravity of the situation. One headteacher from Sunderland said that if they did not see any support from the Government for their school, it would mean losing five teachers, which would not be legal under the 30:1 pupil-to-teacher ratio. The true scale of this issue was described extremely well by another headteacher at the meeting, who said that balancing their budget had always been hard under successive Governments—they had always had to deal with cuts—but that these cuts will be impossible to achieve. She ended by saying:
“This can’t be done—no joke, not kidding or exaggerating”.
Following that meeting, a joint letter from headteachers in different parts of our region, some of which are represented by MPs who are here today, appealed to parents to make their voices heard by the Government regarding these plans. I for one am proud to stand with my local headteachers, school governors and parents who are deeply concerned about this issue and urge the Minister to rethink his disastrous plans, which will negatively affect the lives of children and young people not only in my constituency, but across the north-east and in other parts of England.
To help the Minister along, I will read an extract from that letter to parents. It will help him understand what is happening on the ground and the plight facing our schools right now. It is unprecedented for teachers from three boroughs to get together and write to parents in this way. The letter states:
“School leaders in our region have endeavoured to make every conceivable cut to our spending, but are now faced with reducing basic services still further, all to the disadvantage of your child.”
Teachers do not go into this profession to make life harder for children and to make cuts. They do it because they want to help transform the lives of all children, especially those who need extra support the most. What we are currently seeing is the exact opposite, and it is all due to this Government’s shocking failures. As someone who has campaigned during my 12 years as a Member of Parliament to improve the lives of children and young people, especially those living in poverty, I fail to see how the Government’s current actions with our education system will help to alleviate any issues of child poverty and disadvantage in our society.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
I thank my hon. Friend for calling this debate and the critical point she is making about education in deprived communities and social mobility. The school I went to, Kenton Comprehensive School, has announced that it will cut 24 staff posts, including three teacher posts. The head says that she is making every effort to ensure that that does not impact on the learning experience, but does my hon. Friend agree that at a time when we need to enhance our skills, when the future of every child depends on the education they receive, and when social mobility and social equality are such an issue, it cannot be acceptable to cut education and staff in this way?
I totally agree. As my hon. Friend knows, education is a critical way of reducing poverty in society, as it equips children and young people with the knowledge and tools to get on in life, but the best schools also inspire them to go on and achieve their dreams. That is crucial in the north-east, where an estimated 132,000 children are living in entrenched generational poverty. That is why the cuts are deeply worrying to those of us representing seats in the north-east. The children we represent do not deserve that.
It is a well known fact that poverty impacts on the attainment of children in our society. That was clearly documented in 2015, when GCSE results were analysed. It showed that 36.7% of disadvantaged pupils received five A* to C grades, compared with 64.7% of all pupils. In this country, there is a strong correlation between parental social background and children’s test scores, particularly when compared with other developed countries, where it is less so. This is compounded by the fact that children in some of England’s most disadvantaged areas are 27 times more likely to go to an inadequate school than children living in the least deprived areas. That is why it is important that schools are used as a conduit to alleviate some of the issues that children in poverty face and to ensure that they get the best possible start in life.
Poverty is not inevitable. We do not need to see poverty in our society. What poverty tells us is that, due to a lack of political will, innovative thinking and a drive to act, we have failed as a society to address the social and economic issues that cause poverty. We have seen none of those things when it comes to school budget cuts. Instead we are seeing further social separation and division. That is seen quite plainly in the Government’s pet project, where they plan to pump millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money into grammar schools and the rolling out of more free schools and academies, instead of supporting what parents and teachers are calling for, which is for their child’s current school to be funded properly. That was brought to light just today with the publication this morning of the Public Account Committee report. It called the Government’s free school policy “incoherent” and wasteful, with the Department for Education spending over the odds for schools and new free school places in areas where they were not needed, because there was not demand. Why can we not take some of this wasteful spending—the Public Account Committee is cross-party and it knows what it is talking about—and use it to mitigate the terrible funding cuts that our schools are facing?
In conclusion, for the sake of the children who live in my constituency, but also those of other MPs across the north-east, the Minister must rethink his and his Department’s approach to education without delay. Our education system should be funded fully and fairly, so that it can not only educate our children, but use its power to help improve our society. I hope the Minister will truly listen to this debate and take all our concerns into consideration, especially those of teachers and parents. Investing in education is investing in our children’s and Britain’s future. Those children in the classroom today are our future workforce. They will take our country on to greater things if we only give them the chance. Failing to support them now will be disastrous for our nation’s future and will only store up problems in later years for society as a whole. I hope the Minister understands the scale of what this all means and will go back to his officials following this debate and seriously reconsider his approach to funding our schools. Our children deserve no less.