On 8 February I spoke in Parliament on the Education Bill. You can read the text below and you can read the full debate here.
This Bill fails our children and young people. In spite of what the Secretary of State claims, many of its measures are grossly unfair, and I will not support it. It is full of rhetoric promising to devolve power to families and professionals, but the reality is quite different, with many parts of the Bill actually centralising power. As we have already heard, it will make it impossible for parents to challenge decisions about admissions, as well as limiting the choice of subjects that teachers can offer their students and denying communities the opportunities that can be gained by schools working together in partnership.
From early-years provision to students aspiring to higher education, the Bill restricts educational opportunity. With one hand, it extends free entitlement for early education and child care, which I support, yet with the other it removes the need for local authorities to ensure that there is enough quality child care available in their area. The Bill proposes to allow maintained nursery schools and classes to charge for any early-years provision above the 15-hour entitlement. That, in conjunction with the early-years single funding formula that will come into force in April, will have a devastating impact on settings that currently provide free full-time places for disadvantaged children.
More than 3,500 Sure Start children’s centres were opened under Labour, offering a range of early-years, health and parental support services to more than 2.5 million children and their families. Yesterday, we heard the Minister of State, Department for Education, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) edge her way round the question of whether Sure Start children’s centres would continue to remain open and to offer every child the best start in life, or whether hundreds would close, as the survey carried out by 4Children and the Daycare Trust predicts. In my own constituency, Sure Start workers are already being made redundant. It is no good saying that early-years education is important, only to take away the funding so that parents cannot access it.
The damage that will be done to early-years education by cutting the grants for Sure Start is just the start; every parent worries about getting their child into the school of their choice. Yet these proposals will make it harder, not easier, for parents to choose what is right for their child, as free schools and academies squeeze money out of the funding for schools in their area. Similarly, the proposals on admissions will mean that parents will struggle to fight for what their child needs. Clause 34 removes the requirement for local authorities to establish an admission forum.
Even if a child can get into the school that the parents want, the way in which the Secretary of State is narrowing the national curriculum will make it harder for children to achieve. He claims that he wants to consult parents and teachers on what should be taught, but by limiting the English baccalaureate he seems already to have made up his mind that it should be quite restrictive. How can I say to a young person from my constituency that it is more important for them to learn Latin than to be able to use a computer, especially when 10% of our gross domestic product is generated from the online economy? That simply does not make sense.
With the axing of Building Schools for the Future and the promise that it gave to every child, including those in my constituency, of the learning environment that they need to succeed, it is most worrying that the Bill still fails to define the capital funding that will be available for free schools and academies. The so-called academy conversions are another example of co-operation and partnership working between schools being undermined by this Government, with federated schools being able to apply to become an academy without any discussion with other schools.
My final point relates to part 8 on student finance, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) mentioned. This is like the small print of a dodgy contract: it is almost hidden, yet it proposes to remove the cap on student loan interest rates. In effect, this will allow profit to be made out of student debt. With the trebling of tuition fees, this is another example of the Government’s unfairness, kicking away the ladders of opportunity from our most disadvantaged young people.