Emma Hardy: Consider cost of ignorance when funding classrooms

Classroom assistants play a vital vole, says Emma Hardy MP, in helping children to learn to read in an engaging way.
Classroom assistants play a vital vole, says Emma Hardy MP, in helping children to learn to read in an engaging way.
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THE debate on school funding always appears to follow the same tired pattern.

Teachers, parents, education trade unions and the Opposition parties all point to the facts: increased class sizes; the number of teachers leaving the profession; the lack of adequate support for children with special educational needs and disabilities; the number of “expensive” subjects cut from the curriculum; ​the cancelled school visits because the schools cannot subsidise them.

And then there is the number of teaching assistant jobs that have been cut or reduced; the declining state of the school estate; the request by schools to even put Amazon wish lists out for parents because they cannot afford basic school supplies; and many other concrete examples of continual underfunding.

The Government then say “We have increased funding for schools”. What they do not say is that what they give with one hand they take with another.

The reality is that the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that, from 2015-16 to 2018, funding for schools fell in real terms by just over four per cent per pupil. Since April 2017, the 0.5 per cent Apprentice Levy has been an additional burden on the payroll. Schools tell me they see it as an additional tax that they cannot use to improve the learning, or outcomes for the pupil,s in their classes.

On top of that, we have had increased National Insurance contributions and an increase in inflation. The number of children requiring special needs support has increased by 21 per cent in the past three years.

Nationally, the National Association of Head Teachers undertook a survey called “Breaking Point”, which found that more than four fifths of respondents had reduced the number of hours of teaching assistants, or their numbers, to balance their budgets. More than a third of respondents said that they had to reduce the number of hours of teaching staff.

Figures sometimes lack the human impact or real story behind them. I can speak about the teaching assistants that I worked with in my 11 years as an infant teacher and the difference that they made. Yes, part of it was about the educational achievement of the children who did not often read at home. They were taken every morning by me or the teaching assistant to make sure that they had the time, and the quality interaction, to improve their reading.

However there is much more to it than that, such as when a child of only six years old decides to vomit everywhere in the classroom. Who has to clear it up? The teaching assistant has to do that because the teacher has to stop the 29 other children going to inspect the vomit that is in their classroom. These things happen in infant school and nursery classrooms, and yet, what happens if we take those teaching assistants away? Imagine the disruption. Every teacher around the country can tell us about the disruption caused by a bee in a classroom, let alone a child who suffers from diarrhoea and vomiting.

Over half the schools in my constituency have had to make teaching assistants redundant. Hull headteachers have already written to the Secretary of State, asking for £5m extra in funding to help them to support the children who are most in need. Currently, 526 pre-school children in Hull with special needs are going to be starting school in September, and they need the money for the additional support.

As the system is set up at the moment, schools are expected to provide £6,000 in additional support for children with special needs before they can access any other funding, so that is going to be an incredible cost for ​those schools. What is happening to those children in schools? Where are they going? What happens to the children that nobody wants? They end up being off-rolled and put in alternative provision. The number of children being home-educated or educated outside a school setting has risen from 3,305 in 2010 to 8,304 in 2017, so 8,304 children are waiting for adequate education, and there is huge competition for specialist places in specialist schools.

The forthcoming report from University College London’s Institute of Education said that the system is now pushing schools and their heads to prioritise “the interests of the school over the interests of groups of, usually more vulnerable, children”.

That is the true legacy of this Government’s education reforms – a legacy that excludes and treats the most vulnerable people in our society in this way.

The world is becoming an increasingly dangerous place, with dangerous ideals being promoted closer and closer to home.

Now is the time to be pouring our money into education, fighting fake news and preparing our children for the fourth industrial revolution, because before we complain about the cost of education, we should first consider the cost of ignorance.

Emma Hardy is the Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle. She spoke in a Commons debate on education. This is an edited version.