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Speech in debate on Grammar and Faith Schools

Mike Kane MP, Shadow Minister for Schools: 


I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on securing the debate, which is very timely, and on her impassioned speech.


Labour is obviously committed to an education system for everyone, not just a select few, and we will oppose this regressive policy of grammar school expansion every step of the way. The Prime Minister spoke about delivering for everyone, but what matters is what she does, and her actions reveal the Government’s true colours: working in the interests of the few while everyone else is left behind; in one breath talking of creating a “great meritocracy”, and in the next announcing a return to grammar schools.

However, it is not just Opposition Members who oppose the policy. Grammar schools will not improve the lives of the many. As the hon. Member for Southport (John Pugh) has just pointed out, it is not desirable to fail children at the age of 11. Even the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, said that rejecting the stale old grammars debate was a “key test” of whether the Conservative party was fit for government. He described the debate as “backward looking”, “completely delusional”, and “an electoral albatross”. He rightly pointed out that parents wanted us to do something about the standards in many of the 3,000 secondary schools, rather than tying ourselves in knots over the return of grammar schools.

The chief inspector of schools, Michael Wilshaw, has said:

“The notion that the poor stand to benefit from the return of grammar schools strikes me as quite palpable tosh and nonsense—and is very clearly refuted by the London experience.”

A number of Members have alluded to that experience today. The implementation of the London challenge fund revolutionised education in the capital, but, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan, other schemes, such as Greater Manchester’s, were cut in 2010 as a result of austerity measures.

The Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee, the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), who spoke so well today, told Radio 4’s “The Westminster Hour” recently:

“We have serious issues about social mobility, in particular white working-class young people”

—that, too, was mentioned by the hon. Member for Southport—

“and I don’t think that having more grammar schools is going to help them.”

Lord Willetts, the former Universities Minister, who is now the chair of the think-tank the Resolution Foundation, said that he had not changed his views since the Conservatives were in opposition, and that the evidence suggested that they had failed to help disadvantaged children.

Fewer than 3% of children on free school meals attend grammar schools. My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) spoke eloquently about social mobility in that context. Only today, as we have heard, every head teacher in Surrey signed a letter to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State opposing the expansion of grammar schools. The Government, however, are simply not listening, even though there is no evidence to support the policy.​
I mentioned austerity a little earlier. According to the National Union of Teachers and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, England’s schools are experiencing the largest real-terms funding cuts for more than a generation. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan, schools face unprecedented pressures, and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Stroud, the Government have yet to announce when they will consult on the fair funding formula. In real terms, schools will lose a huge amount of money, rising to £2.5 billion a year by 2020, and 92% of schools will have their funding cut. The average cut for primary schools will be £96,500, and the average cut for secondary schools will be £290,000. The average loss per primary school pupil will be £401, and the average loss per secondary school pupil will be £365. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that school budgets will have fallen by 8% over the course of this Parliament. The budget was protected only in cash terms, rather than in real terms, meaning that the schools budget is at the mercy of rising pressures, pupil numbers and the impact of inflation on true value.

Lucy Powell

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech on the issues facing schools today. On the budget, is he aware of the impact of the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) about fewer children now being in receipt of free school meals and therefore the pupil premium? As a result, the budgetary pressures are greatest on schools in the most deprived areas, and the families themselves are often no better off despite not requiring free school meals and the pupil premium.

Mike Kane

That is an excellent point. Schools in poorer areas are certainly feeling the budgetary pressures. Traditionally, we had a system of subsidiarity in education funding, but this Government are trying to pull that away. On top of the figures I have just given, schools are now worried about being further punished in the fair funding formula that the Government have yet to consult on.

The freedom to practise faith and to educate children in a faith—or not—of our choosing is one of the cornerstones of the free and diverse democratic society we enjoy. The right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) made a strong defence of faith and faith schools in our system. The grammar school row has been a distraction from the lifting of the 50% cap rule on faith schools. This policy was brought in by the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). One of his first acts as Education Secretary was to require all new schools of a religious character to be open to admitting 50% of pupils from outside their faith. The measure was aimed primarily at Muslim schools, but paradoxically it had almost no impact on them. The right hon. Lady alluded to this point when she talked about the situation in Blackburn. This measure did, however, prevent the expansion of other faith schools, which has led to real shortages and a lack of choice in many parts of the country. The policy has been an abject failure. Governments must consider more sensible approaches to integration, such as establishing effective twinning arrangements with schools of different faiths, considering setting up mixed-faith academy trusts, and considering that a member of a different faith or none can sit on a governing body.

Dame Caroline Spelman

The point I was trying to make is that social geography is what determines the profile of the pupils drawn from the catchment, and there are fundamental reasons in society why particular groups tend to live in particular areas, often not unrelated to the cost of housing. But the Church of England’s open-to-all policy should mean that pupils of all faiths and none have access to the school that is nearest to them.

Mike Kane

Faith schools also generally draw from a wider catchment area, which means they often draw pupils from a poorer subsection of society. Over 80% of them are doing well or outstandingly well, so it is no wonder that parents currently want to send their children to them. I take on board the right hon. Lady’s point, however.

Labour wants the best for all our children. As a teacher during the previous Labour Government, I saw the roofs fixed or the schools rebuilt, I saw class sizes go down and attainment go up, and I saw unparalleled investment in our early years. But under this Government, we have a black hole in education funding. As pointed out in the eloquent speech of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), there was no mention in the Green Paper of special educational needs. We have a crisis in teacher morale, recruitment and retention, and we have scandal after scandal in academy trusts due to the lack of effective oversight. There is also chaos over the national funding formula and incompetence with regard to the testing and assessment criteria on a scale not seen before. It is a shame that Parliament does not have the equivalent of Ofsted to assess the competence of the Government; if it did, the Government Front-Bench team would no doubt find itself in special measures.

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