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My Response to the Queen's Speech: On Market Forces in Education

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This week I responded to the Government’s Queen's Speech on the topic of education, skills and training. In my speech I laid out my concerns about the growing rise of market forces in education and particularly the case of Burnley University Technical College, I said the following:

 

It is a pleasure to follow the moving and powerful speech from my hon. Friend Angela Rayner. I am really grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I was pleased to hear in the Queen’s Speech that the Government intend to deliver opportunity for all at every stage of life. This is a worthy aim, and the Government are quite right to focus on the pursuit of educational excellence. It is to the education for all Bill that I would like to address my remarks.

The pursuit of educational excellence is undoubtedly the best way to enhance the life chances of individuals, and a well educated, skilled workforce is essential for a successful economy. So far, so good. Sadly, however, these words do not seem to translate into the right actions. Let us consider the whole academies fiasco. It is widely accepted by educationists the length and breadth of the country that children learn best when they have access to high-quality teaching provided by qualified teachers, irrespective of the structure. It matters not whether this teaching takes place in an academy, a university technical college or a local authority school. What matters for the sustainability of the provision is that there is an overarching educational strategy that plans for the education of each and every child.

I have no objection in principle to the introduction of academies, but they should operate as an integrated part of a planned provision, because children are not customers and education is a right, not a market commodity. Nowhere is this better evidenced than in my own constituency of Burnley. In 2009, the Labour Government built five new secondary schools there. They replaced buildings that were no longer fit for purpose; many had become severely dilapidated. In my son’s school on a rainy day—there are quite a few of those in Burnley—it was a common sight to see a row of buckets down the corridor because of a leaking roof. It was clear that none of those schools was fit for purpose in 21st-century Britain.

I was lucky enough, around that time, to gain experience of schools in Japan and Germany, and I was struck by the stark contrast between the facilities on offer to our children and the high standards available to German and Japanese children. I was quite angry at the time, because I have always believed that British children deserve the best. Of course, as a teacher, I know that there is more to education than mere school buildings. In Burnley, there is a willingness in all sectors to raise educational standards. The teachers, the key stakeholders and, most of all, the pupils are really working hard on this. It was a real pleasure last week to visit Hameldon Community College in my constituency and to hear of the students’ ambition and their dedication to doing well in life. That was indeed a privilege.

Yes, there is more to education than mere buildings, but there is no doubt that providing a stimulating learning environment that is warm and dry is immensely beneficial. Ahead of the £150 million building programme, the local authority expended a lot of time, thought and effort to ensure that the schools were built in the right places, to ensure an appropriate geographical distribution. It was decided that six schools would be replaced by just five to reflect a falling school population.

In 2013 and against that background, the coalition Government opened a university technical college in Burnley. The £10 million college, housed in a regenerated mill, was and is an impressive facility, aimed at providing 14 to 19-year-olds with a specialist engineering and construction curriculum.

There is no doubt that the children who have attended the college have benefited immensely and that both students and parents are absolutely devastated at the recent news that the Department for Education intends to close the college due to inadequate numbers. Everyone in Burnley wanted the UTC to succeed, but there were never enough 14-year-olds to go around and the college was seriously undersubscribed from the outset. Instead of being part of a comprehensive plan, the college was forced to compete for students. The headteachers at neighbouring local authority schools were asked effectively to promote the UTC and to encourage their 14-year-olds to move schools. In the marketplace scenario created by the coalition Government and continued by the present Government, it was a bit like suggesting to Asda that it asks customers to go to Tesco.

Of course, none of that is the fault of the students or their parents. They took up offers of places at the UTC in good faith, never dreaming that the Government would pull the plug. Shockingly, only a few weeks’ notice of closure has been given. I urge the Government to work with me in the short term to secure the education of students who have been pursuing a specialist curriculum for three years. They need and deserve our support. The Government have at the very least a moral duty to honour the contract that they entered into with those students and their parents. I know that on the rare occasion that a local authority school closes, there is a phased closure to ensure that current students are protected. The Government owe these students that much.

If that is not enough, knowing full well that there is a surplus of school places, it beggars belief that the Government have allowed a new free school to open in Burnley. The school opened in September 2014 in temporary accommodation and will soon move into its new premises, being built as I speak, at a cost of £24 million. To be absolutely clear, the school population is falling and the Department for Education plans to close a college and is building another school at the same time. Is that part of the plan for excellence in education? Is that part of the plan to further the life chances of children in Burnley? It does not really look like a plan, but more like an expensive and damaging free-for-all.

You can see my speech and the whole debate on the Queens Speech on Parliament TV at (please copy and paste the link): http://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/e1c4f686-f121-4b7c-bc8e-009b8a79b60a?in=17:56:14&out=18:02:24

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