On the 19th October 2016 Peter Dowd took part in the Westminster Hall debate for Education in Merseyside.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Sir Roger. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) for securing this debate and for giving us the opportunity to make contributions that cover a wide range of issues.
I want to start by picking up a theme that has been developed by the Opposition—that is, the question of grammar schools. Grammar schools are a complete and utter distraction from the things that we need to get to grips with in the short, medium and long term. We need to put that on the record. It is not ideological; it just does not work. People talk about going backwards. This is not just about going back to the ’50s—we will be going back before that and it really is not acceptable.
In a debate such as this, the question is where we begin with such a vast area to cover. There is the whole range, from early years right the way through to university education. I wanted to look at the issue systematically in my neck of the woods, so I wrote to a number of education charities and asked them whether they would be prepared to talk to me about an analysis—research potentially in collaboration with one of the local universities—of my constituency.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) referred to the fact that more than 35% of students in his constituency get grades A to C. The situation is broadly similar in my constituency, at about 40%. I want to tease out some issues related to that, because our schools do fantastic work. Teachers, governors and parents work hard. Day in, day out, they do the work that we ask them, but we can ask of them only so much.
I want to look beyond the narrower situation regarding education and try to determine what the other factors are. I have an idea what they are. In fact, a local group of headteachers came up with their views, serendipitously, and I will be working with them to tease them out. The issues were pupil welfare—diet, dental health, deterioration in accommodation, behavioural problems, mental health issues and stresses relating to the bureaucracy, as it is put. They have stresses and strains all over the place, and this is in an area with a partnership that has 24 schools, most of which are judged to be good or better, with two outstanding schools. One of those outstanding schools has had five outstanding Ofsted inspections on the trot, which I think is unprecedented. At this point, I pay tribute to the former headteacher of that school, Brian Mulroy, who died recently. He spent his life in education and was one of the men who got the school to that status. I put my thanks on the record for the work that he did, and he is not the only one who does such work and who puts their time and effort in, day in and day out.
What happens when the Government introduce things that result in the problems we have had with Concentrix recently? Hard-working families have been put under even more stress because their tax credits have been drawn away from them, and as a consequence, their children have not got free school meals. Whether we like it or not, that has an impact on children’s education. Those sorts of policies are not doing anybody any good. The late Chris Woodhead said that my constituency was doing fantastically against all the odds, and that is because we care for our children. Teachers and families do, and everybody tries to do their best, but they can do only so much.
The Government have to get to the stage where they stop the centralised control of education. Frankly, what Dorset does in relation to Dorset is a matter for Dorset. I do not care. Within parameters, it is for Dorset and any other place to get on with their education systems. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton in saying that we have to stop the atomisation and fragmentation of the education service, and the shilly-shallying around with structures yet again. We have to bring that responsibility back—that might mean bringing it back to the city region in collaboration with renewed and reinvigorated local education authorities. I support my hon. Friend and look forward to working with him on that.
We also have to put the resource in. There is something wrong when we have the situation we have in Merseyside. This is not about picking on other local authorities, but my local authority is the lowest-funded authority in Merseyside per pupil: we get about £300 less than Liverpool. However, we get £1,000 less than Westminster, and there is something wrong with that type of allocation of funding. Westminster is getting about £1,000 more per pupil than my constituency—that is quite shocking and it is just not acceptable. The Government should be getting to grips with that rather than fiddling about with grammar schools and the national formula. The history we have with this Government shows that they will fiddle the formula, which is exactly what they did with local government.
If we are to have a regime, let it be a localised one. If we are to have a funding formula, let it truly be a funding formula and let the children of my constituency get as much money as they need to get a decent education. That is the key.