Robert Halfon: Britain’s education system needs a long-term vision. Here’s why

Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, has identified five challenges that hold the key to improving school standards.
Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, has identified five challenges that hold the key to improving school standards.
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OUR education system faces a number of major challenges, the first being resources. Despite steady investment in the English education system over the last 20 years and record overall levels of public money going into schools — it is important to get that on the record — there are rising cost pressures, which lead to serious challenges to the delivery of high-quality education for all our children.

The Education Committee has announced a new inquiry into school and college funding ahead of the next spending review. It is our hope that a forward-looking inquiry will move beyond the political exchanges in Parliament and elsewhere, which have largely taken place at cross purposes and to little effect.

The Government has rightly chosen to protect overall education funding. Let us look, however, at what the Secretary of State for Health (Jeremy Hunt) has done. He has made the case for increasing funding for the NHS, supported by the chief executive of NHS England. We need the same level of vocal support for our schools and colleges, and a similar long-term vision.

The key figure to bear in mind is real-terms per-pupil expenditure. After all, it is the experience of individual students that matters, and I hope that our inquiry will give them the opportunity to inform and influence the spending review.

Justine Greening, the former Education Secretary, should be commended for redirecting money from the Department to the frontline of schools, but the time has come to seriously rethink the way in which we fund schools and colleges and to adopt a much more long-term perspective.

I have suggested 10 years as a starting point – as is being talked about for the NHS – because it is clear that making a decision every three to four years is just not strategic enough.

The second challenge that schools are facing is the workforce. Becoming a teacher is a special and remarkable career choice, and more should be done to celebrate the contribution of the teaching profession.

However, the National Audit Office found last year that whereas £555m was spent on training and supporting new teachers in 2013-14, the Department for Education spent just £35.7m in 2016-17 on programmes for teacher development and retention, of which just £91,000 was aimed at improving teacher retention. Far too many teachers leave the profession when in other circumstances they could stay.

The third challenge involves improving social justice in our school system. This goes beyond just increasing public investment and strengthening the teaching workforce, because there are still great social injustices in our education system. Just 1.3 per cent of children taught outside mainstream settings get five good GCSEs. Why is this group of children being neglected in this way? Only a third of children receiving free school meals get five good GCSEs, compared with 61 per cent of their better-off peers.

We must act to remove the built-in injustices and anachronisms, such as the favourable conditions under which the independent school sector operates. I have previously challenged the advantaged and entitled nature of many private schools. I fully acknowledge that I was proud to go to one; my father came here as an immigrant and wanted to send me to such a school.

However, I believe that, given the charitable status benefits that they enjoy, there should be a levy on private schools similar to the apprenticeship levy, to ensure that we give the very poorest children in our country the chance to access and climb the private school ladder.

The fourth challenge concerns the curriculum. We face real challenges in terms of our skills deficit, the march of the robots and the arrival of the fourth industrial revolution. We must not allow a gradual and dangerous narrowing of the curriculum, to the exclusion of either creativity or vocational education.

The argument is often between traditionalists and non-traditionalists, and the Opposition paint a picture in which the Government are butchering our education system. I do not agree. We need to be not so much a butcher and more of a Baker. What I mean by that is that we should support the work of Lord Baker, a former Education Secretary, in encouraging much more vocational education.

We still have a way to go in giving young people the consistent message that technical education is as demanding and worthwhile as a traditionally “academic” course, and we need to make it clear that the link between technical education and apprenticeships and the world of work is often much stronger.​

The fifth and final challenge involves improving careers advice. Schools often cite the proportion of students who go on to élite or prestigious universities, but I believe the case can be made for shifting that focus on to the proportion of students in work or undertaking quality apprenticeships. We need to replace the existing duplicated careers services with a national skills service.

My final challenge as Chair of the Education Committee is to carry the debate beyond the false choice between traditionalists and progressives, to focus on addressing social injustice and our skills deficit and, above all, to set out a strategic plan for the next 10 years for what our education must become.

Robert Halfon is the chairman of the Education Select Committee and a Tory MP. He spoke in a Commons debate on schools funding – this is an edited version.