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Speech in debate on Education in Merseyside

Mike Kane MP, Shadow Minister for Schools:

 

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and, for once in a while, to be in a room where we are not defending or advocating for airports in our constituencies.

 

If I may allude to the physical layout of the Chamber, the Minister should not feel too isolated. A lot of great speeches have been made from the Opposition Benches, but I am always reminded of a story that came to me from a speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth). There was a very controversial planning application in his area in the late 1960s for the safari park. He has talked with passion about work involving Shakespeare and the educational outcomes for the safari park, but the local councillor at that time was all on his own in supporting the development. One young, angry Knowsley resident stood up in a room of 700 and asked, with his baby in his arms, “What happens when one of those lions or tigers gets out on to the high street?” The crowd roared. This old councillor in his 80s—in Huyton, which was Harold Wilson’s constituency —rubbed his hair, sucked on his pipe and said, “Well, it’ll just have to take its chances, along with the rest of us.” If the Minister is feeling isolated, how does he think I feel as a Mancunian with all these Merseyside MPs right behind me? However, I have to say that since we built the ship canal in 1894, thanks to Daniel Adamson, the entente cordiale between our two great city regions has improved no end, so it is great to respond from the Front Bench in this debate.

Mr George Howarth

I gently mention to my hon. Friend that it is not usually a good idea to steal somebody’s lines when they are sitting behind you. [Laughter.]

Mike Kane

Let us get on to the real issue at hand.​

In my opinion, the Government have failed to build an education system—as a former teacher, I see this day in, day out—that provides opportunity for all. They are increasingly obsessed with structures—which matter—more than the outcomes for young people. My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) talked about shilly-shallying, and it is shilly-shallying of the first order. They are not tackling the key challenges facing our system: declining budgets and chronic shortages of teachers and places, as alluded to by a number of Members. They are failing to invest and our schools are facing, for the first time since the 1990s, real cuts to their funding.

As a teacher doing my teacher training course after Tony Blair got elected in 1997, part of my day job was going round with a bucket to try and catch the rain coming in from the roof. At the end of that Labour Government, if the roof had not replaced, the school had been rebuilt, and the only thing going through the roof was children’s attainment. We have a very proud record of achievement in those 13 years.

There is still no certainty about how Merseyside will be affected by the Government’s proposed changes to the national funding formula. The Government continue to add to that uncertainty, despite the written ministerial statement on 21 July that the Secretary of State would set out proposals in Parliament in the early autumn. The Secretary of State still has not done that. It is important that the Government ensure that schools do not lose out as a result of changes in the funding formula.

Although the Labour party supports a fair national funding formula, we believe that it should be achieved by investing in all our schools, rather than by taking money away from some schools to give to others. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that school budgets will fall by 8% over the course of this Parliament, as the budget was protected in cash terms, rather than in real terms, meaning that the schools budget is at the mercy of rising pressures and pupil numbers, and the impact of inflation on its true value.

With inflation today rising to a two-year high and many predicting it will rise again in the wake of Brexit—particularly a chaotic Brexit without single market access, which is the course we are pursuing—schools are facing real-term cuts. We have already warned that the Government’s proposed new school funding formula will hit areas such as Liverpool. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) pointed out, Liverpool has seen a 65% cut in core funding. Labour supports fairer funding, but areas such as Liverpool are likely to take the big hit. There should be mitigation in the system to protect school standards and ensure that a loss of funding does not hamstring local areas.

If the northern powerhouse strategy is to mean anything, it must enable local communities to tackle the root causes of low attainment and it must improve special educational needs provision, as highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley. However, there was no SEN provision whatever in the Government’s recent schools paper, which included grammar schools. My hon. Friend the Member for St Helens South and Whiston (Marie Rimmer) pointed out that we need SEN provision within our school system, particularly for people with autism. If the Government were really committed to fair funding, they would invest in schools instead of cutting schools’ budgets for the first time in nearly two decades.​
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on a terrific speech and on getting the subject on the agenda. I also congratulate Mayor Anderson, who appointed a commission for the city. We welcome, in principle, the introduction of the Liverpool challenge, and I hope the Minister matches our welcome.

The shadow Secretary of State has often mentioned how effective the London challenge was and how it provides a model for steps we could take to improve schools, with a focus on investment, leadership and collaboration. It would definitely be good to praise the initiative, which shows how Labour, in Labour areas, is taking steps to improve schools for all children, while the Government are pushing grammar schools, which would cause most children in our communities to lose out, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle.

I remember the introduction of the Manchester challenge in 2008. That was cut when the coalition Government came into power, because of austerity. The reason that the London challenge was successful and improved schools right across the region in which we currently sit was that it lasted for longer and more money was put behind it. The outcomes showed that we can improve every area of the country if we match that provision.

Labour has called for more powers to be developed in local areas to help to tackle educational underperformance. The elected metro mayor of Liverpool would be a good place to start. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram), but he says that if he is elected as Liverpool’s metro mayor next May—and I hope he will be—he will start with one hand behind his back because of the current powers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby talked eloquently about the principle of subsidiarity. The Government seem to have nationalised the school system and privatised it at the same time. Today, the BBC is showing that the Government are taking away councils’ powers to set their own standards for maintained schools. That is a ridiculous system. Subsidiarity tells us that the best decisions are made close to the ground by the people who need to be involved. Labour will go back to that principle when we form a Government.


Peter Dowd

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are well and truly supportive of subsidiarity when it comes to Europe and Britain, but that they take a different view of Westminster and the regions?


Mike Kane

It is astonishing to think of the work that the Liverpool and Manchester city regions have done over the last few years—a devolved spatial strategy, business rates retention, a devolved skills strategy, a devolved housing strategy and devolved health and criminal justice strategies in Manchester—and yet for whatever reason we cannot seem to devolve the schools system. We already have regional Ofsted quality inspectors, so it is not beyond the wit of man to get a proper deal in place so that local politicians have more say and can help to improve standards.

The Education and Adoption Act 2016 goes in the opposite direction, further centralising powers in Whitehall and fragmenting our schools system, rather than giving ​local areas the powers and responsibilities to ensure a step change in our schools’ results. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, said that secondary education in our cities, particularly in Liverpool, is going into reverse, as the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) alluded to.

The chief inspector of schools also called on local politicians to act urgently and champion their schools. How do we do that? How do we show leadership? My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby and for Bootle, and others, have championed those schools, but there should be powers as well. It is not the first time that the chief inspector of schools has highlighted concerns about secondary education in the north of England. In his annual report last December, he described his alarm over the emerging educational divide between north and south.

Turning to early years funding, it is clear that the Government’s proposals to offer 30 hours of free childcare a week are unravelling. As my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) highlighted, this is the most critical time. In theory, a 30-hour free childcare entitlement would see a welcome reduction in childcare costs for families. However, it is clear that the Government’s reforms are risking the sustainability of early education providers and the quality of provision available.

We have seen the decimation of Sure Start units in our cities and, currently, 750 nursery providers across the country are under threat. Many providers are unsure how they will meet their financial and statutory commitments, which is unsurprising given that their situation was precarious even before the proposals were announced. Freedom of information requests reveal that nearly 75% of councils have been given funding levels over the past five years that have failed to keep pace with inflation.

Figures published by the Department for Education in its consultation on the new funding formula state that about 40 local authorities face further falls in rates. As a result, hundreds of nurseries across the country are publicly expressing their fears, with a comprehensive survey from the Pre-school Learning Alliance showing that 750 providers fear being put out of business by the current Government plans. That would be a disaster for areas such as Merseyside. Maintained nursery schools account for many of those providers, as they have had no supplementary funding guaranteed beyond two years as outlined by the Government. The Minister should take this opportunity to end the anxiety and uncertainty that exists for many childcare providers by offering the extra financial support that will allow them to cope with the pressures created by the Government’s new funding formula.

In conclusion, Labour remains fully committed to ensuring that all our young people are given the opportunity to succeed on whatever educational path they choose, and that their opportunities are based on what they aspire to, not on what they can afford.

 

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