Robert Halfon: We need to get a handle on home education – and the surge of kids who’ve vanished from the school roll

28 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that around 93,500 children missed over 50 per cent of their school sessions in Autumn 2020. As disturbing as this may be, at least we are aware of these children and can track them with the hope of getting them back into education.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many thousands of children across our country that are being home educated. We have little information, limited data and no analysis of these pupils’ outcomes. Astonishingly, the Department for Education does not even collect national figures on the number of children in elective home education.

For too long, a fog has shrouded home education.

Compared with our European neighbours, the English model is relatively permissive. A survey from 2018 showed that in a dozen countries, including Germany, home education was possible only in exceptional circumstances and in many cases, parents had to get authorisation. Students’ progress was “monitored and assessed everywhere except in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom”.

Survey figures suggest that, over the year to October 2020, there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of home educated children, with around 75,000 being educated at home. Further to this, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, has identified around 20,000 thousand children who have completely vanished from the school roll. We are faced with a surge of missing children, catalysed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Education Select Committee, which I Chair, published a report this week looking at what steps can be taken to strengthen and support home education. The report was passed unanimously by the Conservative and Labour members of the Committee.

First, our report recommends that the Department for Education should collect much more data and information about home educated pupils. One way of achieving this would be to have a register collected by local authorities. Data from the register would be anonymised nationally. It would enable resources to be targeted. The Department for Education would be able to seriously lend a helping hand to the families of children who have been let down by the school system.

Second, our report notes that every parent is required to secure a suitable education for their child. As we point out, home education should aim to enable the child, when grown-up, to function as an independent citizen in the UK. Individuals are surely independent if they have the qualifications and basic key skills in numeracy and literacy needed to gain access to the jobs ladder of opportunity.

Our report suggests that home educated children should be assessed at least once a year in maths and English. It is worth noting that Anne Longfield, the respected former Children’s Commissioner, has argued for termly visits to home educated children.

Third, too many parents have been forced into un-elective home education. This is especially true of families of children with special educational needs. One parent told our Committee that support for children with special needs was inadequate and that many parents remove their children from school in order to protect them. We are, therefore, proposing the introduction of independent advocates for these families to help them wade through the treacle of bureaucracy and to get the right support for their child.

Fourth, if it is agreed that there should be a register and that home educated children should be assessed, it only seems fair that there should be a level playing field for exams. In practice, this would mean that the Government would fund home educated pupils who wish to complete GCSEs, A-Levels and other relevant qualifications.

Finally, it is worth noting data from the former Children’s Commissioner, suggesting that five per cent of schools were responsible for 40 per cent of children being withdrawn to home education in 2017-18. The Commissioner could not say whether these high numbers reflected parental dissatisfaction or were the result of pressure or influence from the school to withdraw a child.

During the 2018-19 school year, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofsted was investigating around one hundred schools for high levels of pupil movement, potentially linked to off-rolling. Of course, permanent exclusions for serious misbehaviour will still be necessary, but there should be a requirement for schools to publish data on their websites about the number of permanent and fixed-term exclusions alongside the number of children taken off the school roll.

With all that being said, there will be many examples of where home education has proven to be successful. However, some families may be struggling. It does not follow that every home educating family has access to the networks and resources they need to provide a “suitable” education.

Neither is it wrong to suggest that home educated children need to have a basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy. After all, pupils in schools are required to take SATS and other examinations. Moreover, by having a register, we can ensure that assistance and resources can be directed to home educated families who are having difficulties.

Robert Halfon: We need more groups like Us for Them, one of the few campaigners for pupils’ rights during lockdown

14 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

If there were an Oscar for campaigning I would, without hesitation, give it to the pressure group Us for Them. Set up in the height of the pandemic, by a group of families worried about school closures and the damage to children, these parents – with minimal funding – have fought night and day on behalf of pupils.

Maligned in some left-wing quarters as “right-wing extremists”, “anti-vaxxers” and “Covid deniers” (all untrue), Us for Them has worked tirelessly to get children back into school. Especially when it was unfashionable to do so. Its representatives have taken on the might of the education unions, the sleepy establishment and sections of the Labour Party. They have presented their case cogently and coherently in newspapers and on television. All whilst keeping up a relentless social media presence.

Sadly, as parents, they know first hand of the horrific impact that the “schooldown” has had upon pupils. Falling educational attainment, a mental health epidemic, safeguarding hazards and future loss of lifetime earnings. Us for Them speaks with passion and real emotion because some representatives’ own children have been affected, especially in terms of their mental health. Us for Them puts significant pressure on the Government to get our children back into school and learning again.

You do not have to agree with everything members say, but their fundamentals should be cast in stone: the last year has been a national disaster for our young people. Never again should we shut our schools – except in extreme circumstances. Moreover, everything possible should be done to repair the damage over the coming years and months.

Parents and children have been lucky to have a trade union like Us for Them working hard in their interests. Unlike some of the education unions, Us for Them’s campaign was not about opportunistic politics and challenging the Government, it was just focused on the children. If you listen to one podcast this week, turn on the latest Telegraph Planet Normal.  In this episode, Us for Them parents set out why they formed, what they have done and all that they have achieved. I am glad to have met some of these remarkable individuals.

Groups, such as Us for Them, that champion the rights of parents and children are needed more than ever. Last Friday, in my constituency surgery, I met a parent who told me that her child of five, having heard the “wash your hands” mantra, now has a new compulsive obsessive disorder in that she keeps cleaning her hands. So much so that they are sore and bleeding.

My constituent’s other child has also developed significant anxieties. Both had been perfectly healthy and happy children before school closures. I regularly visit schools, and every time I speak to pupils many of them tell me that their mental health suffered significantly during the lockdowns.

Even before Coronavirus, there was a significant rise in the number of young people experiencing mental health difficulties. Social media likely played a large part in causing this increase. Unless remedial action is taken, this has the potential to become a national emergency post-Covid. It is good that the Government has ploughed more funds into mental health and guaranteed an extra £17 million for schools.

However, more needs to be done, including a nationwide assessment of children, not just in terms of their lost academic attainment but also the impact on their mental health. That way, the Department for Education would know the true extent of the problem and have the ability to develop policies accordingly. Although there are now more mental health professionals in schools, they need to be placed in every educational establishment to help pupils, parents, teachers and support staff. We cannot afford to sweep these problems under the carpet any longer.

The fallout from school closures has created other problems too. Research from the respected Centre for Social Justice, shows that 93,500 children have not returned to school (or are in school less than 50 per cent of the time) since full reopening in March. I call these pupils “the ghost children” because they are lost to education.

The welcome £3 billion catch-up programme will not help these children. They are not in school to benefit from the investment. The Government needs to look at parental engagement programmes, like that of the Feltham Reach Academy, to try and get these pupils back into school. The Government should also see whether the Troubled Families Programme could expand its reach to cover absent school children.

Meanwhile, in schools, we have Argentinian levels of hyperinflation in terms of lost learning. Last week, 640,000 children were sent home because of Covid-19 rules. This figure sat at 385,000 the week before. Pupils in Year 10 have been missing one in four face-to-face teaching days. If proper examinations are going to take place next year, what is the solution to ensure a level playing field for the hundreds of thousands of students who have missed lessons? Perhaps that is a question for another day. No doubt Us for Them will have some ready answers.

Robert Halfon: White privilege is the wrong way to describe nearly one million white working-class disadvantaged pupils

30 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I asked a few people in my constituency of Harlow what they thought about “culture wars” at the weekend. Not only had the term passed most people by, but one individual believed that it might be something to do with Game of Thrones.

But, just because most people are not focused on the “culture wars” in the same way that the “Twitterati” and the Westminster Village are, that does not mean we should not allow significant debate and discussion about terms like “white privilege”. Some proponents of concepts like “white privilege” seek to close down debate by accusing those who want to discuss this as racists.

Far from promoting racial harmony, using “white privilege” pits one group against another and does more to damage race relations than enhance them.

Following the recent publication of our Education Select Committee Report, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, it was noticeable how, with the exception of great Labour figures like Lord Blunkett, even discussing the subject of “white privilege” was according to the Left, a sin of sins. The subject was discussed over just three pages out of a 90-page strong report.

I have been told that I am a racist. My staff and I have received calls to my House of Commons Office to explain that we are racist individuals. It is interesting that this attack is coming from the Left. (As an aside, it is the Labour Party that produced a leaflet sent around to Muslim constituents in Batley and Spen showing and criticising the Prime Minister for shaking hands with Narendra Modi, the Hindu Prime Minister of India.)

Our Education Committee decided to highlight the issues caused by the term “white privilege” because its use is fundamentally wrong for three reasons.

First, the concept of “white privilege” implies collective guilt when it should be individuals who are responsible for acts of racism.

Second, if you use the words “white privilege” you are basically telling a poorer white community that they are privileged. You are saying to a single parent, who might live in a tiny flat, doing their best to bring up their child, that they have “white privilege”.

Third, the use of the term is factually incorrect. All of the data shows that, far from being privileged in education, disadvantaged white working-class students are doing worse than almost any other ethnic group. Just 17.7 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a pass or above in GCSE English and maths and only 16 per cent go on to university.

There will be individuals who make intellectual arguments as to what “white privilege” really means. For example, the BBC posted a video to its website of John Amaechi, a psychologist and former NBA basketball player, explaining why he believes “white privilege” to be justified.

However, the problem is that people can make all of the intellectual arguments that they like, but disadvantaged white groups just hear two words, “white privilege”. It is a bit like the Ronseal advert, it does what it says on the tin. The use of the term just tells people that whatever their circumstances, whatever their background, they have “white privilege”. It is wrong.

The other argument that often crops up is that the term “white privilege” is irrelevant and is not being used. This is far from the case. Barnardos uses the term as a guide to parents on its blog. Councils have been introducing “White Privilege” terminology. (See page 16 of our Education Committee report.) Calvin Robinson, a former teacher and school governor, has written extensively as to how the concept of “white privilege” is being introduced into teacher training toolkits and much more besides.

I previously mentioned David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary. Last week, when writing about our Committee report, he said:

“I, for one, have always found it offensive, divisive and frankly irrelevant to making a difference to the lives of those from whatever background, who deserve our support…to put it bluntly, the last thing that young people facing disadvantage need to hear is anything about ‘white privilege’”. 

He gave a warning to his party saying:

“If my party is not able to raise its voice in defence of its former political base of the white working-class, it will not have much chance of winning power in future”.

Blunkett has got it on the nail. Rather than properly reading the report and really examining why white working-class pupils struggle so much more than other ethnic groups in education, the critics choose to try to undermine the whole report based upon literally a few pages that suggested that the concept of “white privilege” was putting white working-class pupils at a further disadvantage.

I mentioned I asked people on the streets of Harlow about the “culture wars”. While they may not have come across this particular terminology, they did hear about our Select Committee report because of the intense media coverage. The overwhelming response has been positive. The silent majority know that white working-class pupils from free school meal backgrounds have been neglected for decades. It is time to right this wrong.

Robert Halfon: Covid has exacerbated educational inequalities. Schools need more autonomy to improve outcomes.

16 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

As the Treasury prepares for the Comprehensive Spending Review this autumn, there are many compelling arguments why schools and colleges should get a funding boost. But levelling up isn’t just about more money. Ministers also need to get to the root as to why progress on closing the attainment gap was stalling, even before the pandemic.

The Government has provided significant additional funding of more than £3 billion for catch-up. This money comes on top of the £220 million for the Holidays Activities and Food programme, the £63 million for local councils for help with meals and essential supplies for struggling families, and the extra £79 million to support children and young people’s mental health. The pupil premium is also being increased to more than £2.5 billion in 2021 to 2022.

The schools minister made clear that the recovery funding was only just the beginning and not the end of the road for catch-up. But it appears it is not reaching the most disadvantaged pupils. The National Audit Office reported that only 44 per cent of the 41,000 receiving tuition in February were eligible for the pupil premium. There was also significant regional disparity; the NTP reached 100 per cent of its target number of schools in the South West of England by March, but just 58.8 per cent in the North East.

If the catch-up programme is going to be the success I believe it could be, it is absolutely vital this support is directed towards the most disadvantaged.

To achieve this, it is important that we allow schools more autonomy over tuition; to permit teachers to appoint their own catch-up tutors, and not leave it solely to the “Approved Partners” already chosen by the Department for Education, but with clear criteria in terms of quality and outcomes. The teachers and support staff, who have done so much during this pandemic, are not only best placed to identify those most in need of additional support, but they can also offer the quality catch-up that these pupils require.

Despite the remarkable efforts of schools in my constituency of Harlow and across our country, we know that Covid-19 has exacerbated an existing problem. The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better-off peers has grown significantly.

Pre-pandemic, disadvantaged pupils were 18 months behind their better off peers by the time they sat their GCSEs. Furthermore, we know that poorer children are less likely to attend schools with an outstanding Ofsted rating and that even in schools where there are good results, the gap between free school meals students and their peers is as wide as elsewhere.

One way to address these inequalities, would be to hold schools accountable for the progress they make in improving the academic outcomes of the most deprived students.

While highly-rated schools have better results overall, the gap between pupils entitled to free school meals and other pupils is the same in schools, whether they are judged outstanding, good, satisfactory or inadequate.

Schools live or die by their Ofsted inspections. No school should be graded outstanding unless they have shown they are improving the progress of pupils from all backgrounds in their local area.

Inspectors should only judge schools outstanding if they can demonstrate that they are making efforts to attract the poorest children in their neighbourhoods, and that they are narrowing achievement gaps between vulnerable pupils and the rest.

In order to receive an outstanding rating, schools must be working to narrow the attainment gap between vulnerable pupils and their better-off peers. Schools could act to work with neighbouring schools to raise standards. Moreover, teams of inspectors should include at least one headteacher who has led a school with high numbers of poorer pupils.

As Sir Kevan Collins pointed out, the average pupil has missed 115 days of school. Children face the four horsemen of the apocalypse: lost learning, an epidemic of poor mental health, safeguarding hazards and a potential loss of lifelong earnings per pupil of up to £40,000.

The Department for Education should also look to reform the pupil premium. Currently, the funding to schools is not ring-fenced and recently a Sutton Trust report highlighted that a third of schools are using the pupil premium to plug other gaps in their budgets, like fixing a leaky roof. Not only should the pupil premium be ring-fenced but there should be much more microtargeting of disadvantaged groups, particularly looking at those who suffer long-term disadvantage.

I have made several appeals for extending the school day to provide pupils with enrichment extracurricular activities to improve mental health and wellbeing, mixed with an academic catch-up programme, to empower our young people and help them grow in confidence. In turn, a generation will be less likely to be lost to an ever-growing attainment gap and the added burden of the pandemic over the past 16 months.

The benefits are clear. In 2017, DCMS found that underachieving young people who participated in extra-curricular sports increased their numeracy skills by 29 per cent above those who did not. And children engaged in school sports clubs are 20 per cent less likely to suffer from mental health disorders.

Sheffield Hallam University reports community sport and physical activity has generated social and economic return on investment for children and young people, including £4.5 million from improved educational attainment and a further £38.6 million from fewer crime incidents among males aged 10-24 years.

According to the Education Endowment Foundation, pupils can make two months’ additional progress per year, with disadvantaged pupils benefiting from closer to three months’ progress. It’s worth noting that 39 per cent of academies founded before 2010 have lengthened their school day and I’ve seen schools in my own constituency of Harlow that do so very successfully.

But credit where credit’s due. This £3 billion commitment to education, alongside the Lifetime Skills Guarantee, the Chancellor’s Kickstart scheme, as well as incentive funding for employers taking on apprentices, shows the real direction of travel.

This was a hefty starter. The main course will be a serious long-term plan for education with a secure funding settlement. My hope is that the Government reaches this point by the Comprehensive Spending Review later this year.

Robert Halfon: Beware the bear traps. The Conservatives’ biggest threat is complacency.

2 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I remember the 1992 election. I was at Exeter University at the time completing a Masters degree, and can recall some events like the back of my hand. Neil Kinnock’s infamous Sheffield Rally being a special highlight.

On the Saturday after the poll, I was in a pub where I used to go every week for lunch and catch up with the newspapers and a very good chilli con-carne. The papers were full of commentary discussing the death of Labour and the new Tory Century.

The Guardian had a bitter cartoon by Steve Bell, about the Conservative success, which said “we rule you, we fool you… but you still vote for us”. John Major had not only achieved an election victory against the odds – and many predictions – but the Tories had gained the highest popular vote since the Second World War.

Five years later, Labour was in power under Tony Blair, with a massive victory. Conservatives were reduced to a small rump of MPs from only the heartiest of blue heartlands. The Tories were not to win a proper healthy majority until Boris Johnson’s extraordinary victory in December 2019. There was even a book published (in 2005) during the long opposition years called The Strange Death of Tory England’.

After the 2019 General Election success, and the remarkable local elections last month, history is repeating itself. The newspapers on May 8 May 2021, were almost word for word of what was said on May 3 1997. It is the Tory Century, Labour is finished etc etc.

Well, I like to think of myself as an optimist, and I definitely believe that Johnson has proved himself again and again, to be an election winner. But, for a number of reasons, I really worry when so many in our party and in the media think that is all over for the centre-left.

First: Events. Who can tell what will happen by Christmas, let alone by 2024?  Who could have ever imagined the last 16 months? Before the vaccine programme, Tory poll projectory last year was on a downer. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, there are so many unknown unknowns, that the idea all will be plain sailing for Tories is for the birds.

Second: The Labour Party. Ok – so Keir Starmer, can’t see the wood from the trees, and as yet has not laid a real glove on Johnson. But Labour remains a hugely motivated historical movement that has at its core a powerful message of helping the underdog. The moderate left are not just going to sit by forever and become extinct like political dodos. At some point – whether it comes before 2024 or after – they will reinvent themselves and renew. It happened under Blair and will happen again under a new Leader.

Third: A “Progressive Alliance”. It is not beyond the wit of the soft left, to form an alliance with the other left-of-centre parties.  This does not necessarily have to mean a “progressive” coalition in Government, but for Labour to stand down in parliamentary constituencies where another left party is in a good place to win – and vice versa. Such things are not implausible. After all, it happened on the centre right in 2019, when the Brexit Party stood down in most Tory seats to ensure a clear Conservative majority parliament for Brexit.

Fourth: The economy and jobs. So far, the economy appears to be bouncing back from lockdown. But what happens if there is a severe recession, or unemployment doesn’t ratchet down fast enough. At some point the £400 billion plus of taxpayers monies, spent by the Government during the pandemic, is going to have to be paid back. There will be tough decision after tough decision, which will dent Tory popularity in the polls.

Fifth: The thing that I perhaps fear the most is Tory complacency. We have many strengths, but when things are going well for us politically, our party has a tendency to put our foot in it – to say unsayable things, to be perceived as harsh and uncaring and appear to be on the side of the well-heeled rather than the just-about-managing – both in language and policy. The drip, drip, drip of these things can be corrosive. It has happened before and is one of the reasons why it took the Tory Party until the 2019 election to be properly trusted again by the public.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a misery-guts or as the Prime Minister calls “a gloomster”. Far from it. I am excited by the election victories we have had (after the local elections, my own Harlow constituency now has a majority Conservative Council for only the second time in the town’s history). Our Red Wall victories are enormous and the MPs who represent those seats are very impressive campaigners. Moreover, the levelling-up agenda – especially on skills – gladdens every Conservative. I just hope we remember there are enormous bear traps ahead, some of which will not even be of our making.

Robert Halfon: There is no moral equivalance between the Hamas terror group and the democratic state of Israel

19 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

A cursory glance at mainstream social media platforms in recent days shows the prevalence of an alarming tendency by online campaigners to whitewash the actions of Hamas – an internationally proscribed terror group.

No amount of glossy, emotive viral memes about ‘freedom fighters’ should mislead the general public from the incontrovertible reality that Hamas is a genocidal extreme Islamist terror group with advanced military capabilities.

Israel finds itself in an unenviable position – locked in a sad cycle of inevitable, periodic violence with a  terror group embedded within a civilian population which actively seeks civilian deaths to harm Israel’s international standing. Burdened with these challenging circumstances, Israel has a right to self-defence, as reasserted by its Western allies, including the UK.

After all, Hamas rockets target Israelis of all ethnicities. Last weekend, one landed  in the Arab Israeli town of Tayibe, while another exploded in a Palestinian village in the West Bank. And yet, anytime violence escalates in the region the Jewish state is faced with a level of contempt unseen anywhere else in the world.

Just as no moral equivalence can be drawn between the Hamas terror group and the democratic state of Israel, nor must any equivalence be drawn between events in Israel and Gaza and the UK’s Jewish community.

As a British Jewish MP, it was very painful to have to secure an Urgent Question this week about a series of deplorable anti-semitic incidents last weekend which culminated in that vile car convoy which paraded through Jewish areas of London threatening sexual violence, and reportedly even telling Jewish residents to “Go back to Poland”.

The involvement of Iran – the world’s most prolific state sponsor or terrier – in the tragic scenes unfolding in Israel and Gaza cannot be overstated. Simply, they have provided the critical financial and material support necessary for Hamas to fight round after round of these bloody and devastating conflicts.

One need look no further than Hamas’s own leaders to substantiate the close links between Hamas and its Iranian paymasters. Hamas’ leader, Yahya Sinwar, boasted in 2019 that “If it wasn’t for Iran’s support we would not have had these capabilities”.

The former leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Quds Force ,Qasem Soleimani ,was a lynchpin of this support. In one particularly colourful incident, a senior Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, vividly recalled being given nine suitcases filled with $22 million in 2006 during a trip to Tehran following a meeting with Soleimani. It is little surprise that ordinary Iranians have increasingly taken the brave decision to speak out against their morally and increasingly financially bankrupt fundamentalist regime.

With negotiations ongoing in Vienna over last-gasp efforts to resuscitate the failed JCPOA nuclear agreement, one might expect Iran would be minded to keep its head – and that of its terror proxies – down.

Under the nose of the international community, the armoury open to Hamas has advanced significantly in the intervening period. Collectively, Gaza-based terror groups are believed to be in possession of 30,000 rockets. What started as crude directionless mortar and homemade rockets – still deadly but with limited explosive potential and limited range – has morphed into advanced rockets with large warheads capable of travelling 100+ miles with a worrying degree of accuracy. None of this would have been possible without the extensive input of Iran.

For years, Hamas’s ever improving inventory (from rockets to armed drones and Russian made guided anti-tank missiles) would arrive in Gaza via a weapons smuggling route that led directly from Iran through to Yemen and then across the Red Sea to Sudan where they would then begin their journey northwards via Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula with the aid of Bedouin smugglers.

Once at the Gaza border, they would be spirited into Gaza by one of the thousands of smuggling tunnels that used to be so prolific before Egypt’s military launched a major clampdown in recent years. The destabilising consequences of these weapons are, of course, one of the many reasons why Egypt retains its own blockade of Gaza to this day.

To boost its chances of safely receiving its deadly payload, Iran also helps Hamas to operate an additional smuggling route via the water. The IRGC are known to send weapons via the Suez Canal and then into the Mediterranean Sea where Hamas naval ‘frogmen’ will transport the weapons into Gaza off the Egyptian coast under the cover of darkness. Several major interceptions have been made by Israel over the years, uncovering tonnes of weaponry destined for the Strip, but it is clear that a whole lot more is going undetected.

As a result of growing disruption to these smuggling routes as well as punishing U.S. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activities, Israel’s security officials believe that Tehran has adapted its strategy. An emphasis is now placed upon domestic production of rockets based upon Iranian missile designs. Hamas commanders are even understood to have visited Iran for fact finding missions alongside their IRGC overseers.

An Al Jazeera documentary about Hamas broadcast last year even showed its terrorists digging up old water pipes from Israeli settlements abandoned in 2005 for repurposing as rockets, and claiming to have sufficient material for another ten years of rocket production.

Hamas has shown itself capable in recent days of firing considerably greater numbers of rockets at any one time than it ever has before, and over a much greater distance. Its barrages have been intense, with 470 rockets fired in the first 24 hours, compared to a peak of 192 rockets fired in a single day in the last conflict in 2014. The tactic of firing 100 plus rockets from multiple directions in a single barrage in an attempt to overwhelm Israel’s vaunted Iron Dome missile defence system has proven surprisingly effective.

I have had the grim experience of holding the remains of some of these rockets in a visit to Israel’s southern town of Sderot: a town where the norm is to have as little as 10 seconds to find shelter in the event of a rocket or mortar attack. Little wonder that the town – which has a rocketproof train station and schools – is known as the bomb shelter capital of the world.

Ultimately, unless the international community belatedly wakes up to Iran and its involvement in Gaza then it will sadly doom yet more generations of Palestinians to ongoing conflict.

Israel wants peace. It has made past treaties with Jordan, Egypt and most recently, the United Arab Emirates. It’s worth remembering the Jewish state withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in August 2005. No peace will ever be achieved if the Iranian financed Hamas and Hezbollah continue with their all out war to try and throw Israel into the sea.

Robert Halfon: Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject – just not John Lewis or wallpaper

5 May

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The People’s Priorities

Usually, my inbox is flooded with emails on every conceivable subject, from animal rights to free school meals and Universal Credit. But, bar a few robotised missives, I have had barely a peep from Harlow residents about Lulu Lytle, John Lewis, wallpaper or sofas. Neither has interior design been mentioned on the doorsteps to our local council candidates.

Although this may be unfathomable to the Westminsterocacy, is this really that surprising? The country has been in a state of national emergency. We appear to be getting over the worst of the pandemic, the vaccination programme has exceeded all expectations and the gradual padlock removal from the lockdown gates is upon us.

In the run-up to local elections, much of the farrago is seen as political opportunism. Not least with the leader of the Labour Party posing in John Lewis with a wallpaper roll – an Ed Miliband “bacon roll” moment (although at least this went viral).

So, without counting chickens, I am relatively hopeful for these elections. Conservatives have run a gritty street campaign focusing on affordable housing, education and skills, and value for council taxpayers. Good Conservative councils cost you less.

Meanwhile, in a hangover from the Corbyn era, in my constituency of Harlow, a Labour Candidate has been campaigning and organising a petition against army Cadet course in a local school. Not quite the people’s priorities. Starmer has a lot of work to do if he is to change his party a la Blair.

In the meantime, every good wish to Conservative council candidates and to all campaigning volunteers activists, every good luck and success. You deserve it.

The Watchful Peace

Whatever happens tomorrow at the polling stations, it really does mean that, in terms of the pandemic here in the UK, the era of the “Watchful Peace” is upon us.

Unlike last summer, during which I dutifully munched holiday burgers to “Eat Out to Help Out” and naively imagined the worst was over, this time it really does feel a little different.

If we can keep various Covid strains from entering the country (or at least like South Korea, successfully knocking them on the head when they arrive), we could get back to the way things used to be, before March 2020.

The question is, of course, how back to normal will things ever be? Is everyone just going to crowd back on commuter trains, or spend hours in traffic driving to and from work on the M1, M4 and M11? Will the urban Pret a Mangers suddenly fill up once again? Can our larger office buildings in the City be rejuvenated as the worker-bees return?

For my part, I hope not. It is not that I want to stay at home – far from it. I am looking forward to the day when Parliament is back to its old self once again.

However, if there can be more balance between work and home life, surely that can only be a good thing? If people spend more time in their own communities, local economies, small businesses and employment all stand to benefit, not just those of large cities. If there is less commuting and travelling, that means less traffic, pollution and more importantly, a significant cut to the cost of living.

I believe that employers should decide where they need their employees to be, but many will be more imaginative than they have been in the past. There are huge savings in office costs to be had and potentially more productive workers.

With the advent of Microsoft Teams and Google, connections are that much easier. Of course, nothing will ever substitute human relationships and face-to-face meetings, especially networking and sealing the deal. However, I suspect under the watchful peace, it will be more quality over quantity.

Not forgetting the private sector workers who kept the show on the road during Covid

But in speaking of the above, I am just referring to those employees who have been able to work from home during the pandemic – predominantly, the so-called “professional classes”.

The other day, I was called by a national newspaper asking me if I would give a supportive quote to the idea of public sector workers getting a medal for all they have done during the pandemic. “Absolutely”, I said, “but what about all those millions of workers from the private sector who also kept the show on the road – the supermarket workers, delivery lorry drivers, couriers, pharmacy employees and many more besides?”

Unlike the employees I was referring to in the previous segment, not only don’t they have the luxury of even having the option of being able to work from home, but travail for long hours on low pay. There are no 38 Degree-style automated campaigns battling for their wage increases, or a proper pension.

Recognising the millions of people in the private sector who did so much during the Coronavirus can’t just be about a medal. I have long believed that the central purpose of levelling up must mean cutting the cost of living for those just about managing.

The Government should recognise their contribution by focusing on further tax cuts for the lower paid and strengthening their employment rights so that these workers can also enjoy a quality of life.

Robert Halfon: Our education system is ill prepared for the jobs for the future – and it needs to adapt pretty fast.

21 Apr

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

In an eye-catching ConHome article, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb recently emphasised the need to maintain school standards as we navigate the wreckage of the pandemic.

There was much to like about Gibb’s piece. He has long extolled the virtues of aspiration, hard work and resilience – and he has worked with laser precision to raise school standards.

I greatly admire his and the Government’s work. The proportion of pupils passing the Year 1 phonics screening check increased from 58 per cent in 2012, to 82 per cent in 2019. We are stripping out qualifications that hold no real currency.

We now have a system that encourages schools to innovate and raise their games. Our free schools programme continues to produce gems like King’s College London Mathematics School. New, more rigorous apprenticeship standards are replacing older frameworks. And we have some of the finest universities in the world.

However, nestled in the long-grass of Gibb’s article was this astonishing claim: “We must strongly resist the calls from those who talk about ripping up our curriculum to make it more ‘relevant’ or to make it solely about preparing pupils for work.”

Respectfully, I couldn’t disagree more.

While education wears many hats, its primary purpose must surely be employment.

Without employment, we lose the means to meet our basic needs. The Government loses its ability to raise taxes and pay for key public services. We seize to trade – to swap goods, services and ideas. Employment also shapes our identities – it gives us structure, a sense of purpose and dignity, and a means of building new friendships.

Given the paramount role of employment at the root of society, we should always do what we can to stimulate good jobs. That means creating the right economic climate for investment and growth, and making sure people have the right skills.

Yet the latter is increasingly uncertain. Why? Because the march of the robots is well and truly in motion. Doomsday predictions about mass unemployment are off the mark, and revolutions in robotics, artificial intelligence and other areas will produce new jobs – but only if people have the right skills to do them.

The pace of change is electrifying, too. According to a study by PwC, 28 per cent of jobs taken by 16-24-year-olds could be at risk of automation by the 2030s. NVIDIA, a superchip company in my Harlow constituency, told me that coding will soon be redundant in its workforce as software begins to write itself.

As our labour market thunders towards the digital age, we must urgently reconsider how our education system can support the skills of the future.

Currently, it falls short.

A knowledge-rich curriculum with a narrow focus on traditional subjects, and a tired system of assessment, can only get us so far.

Yes, knowledge is important – people need to reach a certain level to contextualise their learning and development. But skills-based learning must not be crowded out by overemphasising this.

The Department for Education’s Employer Skills Survey, the CBI, the OECD and the World Economic Forum all suggest that the jobs of the future will place much stronger emphasis on skills such as collaboration, communication, problem solving, emotional awareness, creativity and entrepreneurship. Time and again, my parliamentary committee has heard the same.

There must be enough space to develop these skills – and, crucially, the aptitude to adapt and retrain as knowledge quickly fades (as will increasingly become the case); currently, we don’t spend enough time on these things.

This harms us all, but it deals disadvantaged pupils the heaviest blow. For these children, the current approach has reached its limits: while the GCSE attainment gap (the difference in academic development between them and their peers) closed from 20.4 months in 2011 to 18.4 months in 2017, progress has ground to a screeching halt (between 2017 and 2019, it remained stuck at 18.4 months).

We must therefore change what, and how, we teach our children – an engaging form of pedagogy that builds in more applied and interdisciplinary learning. Highly-rated schools like the XP School in Doncaster, and School 21 in Stratford, give us a glimpse into how this might be done.

The XP School uses an interactive model of learning that breaks down conventional silos between subjects; pupils learn in more personalised ways which are brought to life through fieldwork in their local community – and they hone essential skills by adding oral presentations, projects, portfolio work, practicals and group assignments to written exams. School 21 places a strong premium on verbal skills – the spoken equivalent of literacy – in its curriculum, with impressive results and is ranked “Outstanding” by Ofsted.

A Levels should also be replaced with a Baccalaureate-style of qualification. Our post-GCSE education is currently very narrow when compared to successful education systems across the world, where most pupils in upper secondary education study more subjects. It is not helpful to expect pupils to make life-changing decisions that shape their career paths at 16, and it is also not sensible to ask pupils to study such a narrow range of subjects from then on.

We also don’t push basic skills enough after 16 – which goes some way to explaining why a third of young people in England still leave education without being able to read, write and count properly. One way or another, all pupils should be doing some sort of numeracy and literacy development until they are 18, even if those skills are more functionally entwined.

Lastly, pupils need far better access to vocational paths, if it is clear that their strengths and passions lie in those areas. In many other advanced economies, technical routes are a well-respected, and well-oiled, part of the educational machinery that exists.

In Switzerland, for example, around two thirds of students in the final part of their secondary education choose a vocational pathway – mostly doing courses that combine classroom learning and on-the-job training.

Moreover, in Canada, provincial governments have broadened the curriculum to good effect. For instance, in British Columbia, the Dogwood Diploma includes a blend of mandatory credits and optional units, taken over three years (15-18).

Pupils take English (or French, if their native language), maths, social studies, science and PE – and then choose a careers programme and either a fine art or an applied skills subject. The government of British Columbia cited research showing that students who focus on areas that interest them are more engaged in school and more likely to complete their courses.

It isn’t just because other countries have adopted a Baccalaureate model for education that we must follow suit, but it actually improves outcomes. Not only does it boost access to participation in Higher Education (and is linked to higher retention rates), but the University of Melbourne concluded in one paper that the International Baccalaureate (IB) has significant longer-term benefits:

“For many people, the IB has considerably influenced and shaped their working lives. This was evident in reflections on how the IB had provided people with particular skills or dispositions, such as understandings of cultural difference, the capacity for analytical and critical thinking, the development of high-level written skills, and the acquisition of foreign languages. These factors were noted as having directly and positively impacted on their working lives.”

John W. Gardner – the Republican US reformer who served as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1960s – once said: “All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”

That sentiment is increasingly true of our education system today.

We must act now so that, rather than be deposed by the future of work, our children can embrace it confidently and climb the ladder of opportunity.

Robert Halfon: 30 years ago, Major defied foreign policy orthodoxies – and saved thousands of Kurdish lives

7 Apr

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The Kurds are an ancient people scattered by historical omissions and commissions over four countries in the Middle East. The only internationally recognised federal unit is in Iraq, largely thanks to the actions of a pragmatically moral British Prime Minister just 30 years ago.

The initial spur was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 that impelled an international and US-led military campaign to liberate the country. That was achieved by February 1991 and Saddam’s weakness, together with appeals for Saddam to be overthrown, prompted Shia uprisings in the south and a more organised uprising in Kurdistan.

A US General mistakenly allowing Saddam to use his helicopter gunships enabled him to crush the Shia rebellion and to turn on the Kurds who had liberated many cities.

That forced two million Kurds to flee to the mountains on the borders with Iran and Turkey, and some then entered those countries. The Kurds understandably feared further genocide as they had lost nearly 200,000 men, women and children to a genocidal onslaught three years before. Saddam’s forces also then used chemical weapons against Halabja and other towns as well as razing thousands of villages to the ground and forcing Kurds into urban concentration camps.

The 1987/1988 genocide, officially recognised by the UK Parliament in 2013, took place largely out of sight during the Iraq/Iran war. This time, BBC cameras broadcast the haunting scenes of death and misery for millions in the freezing mountains where 500-1,000 people were dying each day.

Conservative MEP Paul Howell, who visited the Turkish border, said ”On television, you only see the faces, you don’t see the ground. There you see human faeces, diarrhoea, sheep’s heads and entrails, it’s as close to hell as you can think of.”

The terrible scenes on our screens galvanized popular British action as concerned citizens scrambled to send 100 tonnes of vital provisions to the Kurds. Kurds in the UK, including Nadhim Zahawi, lobbied the British government while Kurds at home argued for immediate intervention. Some occupied Iraqi embassies.

MPs of all colours were horrified and demanded action. Conservative grandee Julian Amery argued that in any conflict between non-interference in the affairs of other countries and helping refugees in danger, we should back the refugees. Poignantly, Amery’s father was British Colonial Secretary when the RAF bombed Kurdistanis between 1922-1925 and said it was “a splendid training ground for the air force.”

A routine diplomatic response to this could have been to wring hands and send limited aid supplies but urge Iraq to resolve the issue. But new Prime Minister, Sir John Major, had other ideas.

Major was moved by the outpouring of public outrage. He said of Saddam that “Genocide was in the man’s mind, and it was certainly in the man’s character.” Hundreds demonstrated in Glasgow and heard a message from Major: “I regret that I was not able to attend but my thoughts will be with you and the people of Iraq who have fled to escape the brutality of their own government.” Conservative Prime Ministers don’t usually send messages to demonstrations.

He took the issue to Cabinet on March 21 – Kurdish new year, as it happens – and within weeks persuaded the European Union and the United States to implement his notion of a safe haven and no-fly zone for the Iraqi Kurds. They lasted until the liberation of Iraq in 2003.

Millions of refugees, some of whom had been in neighbouring countries since the 1970s and 1980s, returned to their homes in the largest refugee return since 1945. In 1992 they held elections to a parliament and formed their first coalition government on July 4. Despite a bitter civil war between 1994-1998 they laid the foundations of the modern Kurdistan Region.

Major’s actions defied foreign policy orthodoxies which respected sovereign powers and certainly saved thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Kurds. Without such focused military intervention, the Kurdistan Region would not exist today.

Without a decent near-nation that is the Kurdistan Region, Iraq would have been more difficult to stabilise after 2003. Without the Kurdistan Region’s defiance Daesh could have expanded its so-called Caliphate from Mosul to Kurdistan and Baghdad. If this medieval, misogynist but militarily and digitally-sophisticated rape and genocide cult had accessed Iraq’s oil wealth and weaponry, there would have been more deaths there and on our streets. It could have sparked wider war in the Middle East. There wouldn’t now be a place that offers safe havens that may help stop Christians and other religious minorities being made extinct.

Britons can be very proud that Major quickly answered the calls of the Kurds at the moment of their righteous rebellion and intense suffering. Tony Blair deserves tribute too for continuing Major’s safe haven policy.

It has become fashionable to believe that the UK can only do harm in the Middle East. It is true that previous British governments carved up the Middle East to secure oil supplies and forced the Kurds into an Iraq that rejected their rights and existence. At a stroke, Major rebalanced the historical record and our country is now “working closely with our partners” in Iraqi Kurdistan as Boris Johnson recently told me in the Commons. Major’s hurried humanitarian actions averted disaster, saved an historic people and gifted the Free World a decent ally.

Robert Halfon: Patriotism is important to people – whatever the liberal elite thinks – and there’s nothing wrong with that

24 Mar

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Pride and Prejudice

I have tended not to engage in the cultural wars raging at the moment. This is, in part, because I have been focused on education and Covid and, second, because I remember the words of a close friend, “You don’t need to don your armour for every battle.”

However, the skirmish over our Union flag and the sneering about ministers’ flag displays from BBC presenters really got my goat.

I remember some years ago (pre-2010) when I was a parliamentary candidate, a BBC journalist came to visit Harlow. I happened to show him a leaflet I was sending to residents, containing some key campaign messages about cutting the cost of living and the like. The front of the postcard displayed my face superimposed on a Union flag. The reporter looked at my leaflet in absolute horror and questioned whether I was pandering to the far-right. Completely gobsmacked, I replied how on earth can a leaflet with our national flag be seen as any way promoting racism?

I never forgot this moment because, to me, it symbolised all too clearly that so many of the London professional classes were out of touch with the decent patriotism and pride of most citizens. The infamous 2014 “Rochester” Tweet by Shadow Cabinet member Emily Thornberry served as another example.

In many overseas countries, I have seen flags proudly displayed on government buildings and in ministers’ offices. No one raises so much as an eyebrow. Yet, when ministers choose to do so in this country, this is something to be mocked and laughed at.

The reason I care about this is because I think the knocking and disdain for our flag by the “liberal elite”, is a small example of the gulf between their views and those of millions of voters – and one of a number of reasons why so many voters turned against Labour.

Far from being the first refuge of the scoundrel, patriotism is an anchor that roots all of us in our communities and provides stability and cohesiveness from one generation to the next. Pride before prejudice.

Schools Disgrace

Over the past week, horrific allegations have emerged about sexual abuse, assault, harassment and “a culture of rape” (predominantly conducted by male students and directed towards females) in certain leading private schools. At the time of writing, over 5,500 testimonies from current and former pupils have been documented on the “Everyone’s Invited” website.

Even worse, it appears that school staff have not always taken adequate action upon learning of allegations (until it reached the media). At first, it looked like this was confined to one or two schools. Now, it seems this problem is much more widespread. As I write, a state school in Lincolnshire has hit the press because of students sharing abhorrent rape “jokes” online.

There must be a national inquiry led by the Department for Education or Ofsted to establish exactly what has gone on, the scale of the abuse and how the failings of protection of female pupils, of care and safeguarding have gone unchecked.

It is my view that Ofsted should inspect all schools – public or private – rather than having different inspection regimes. These schools, some with a great history, should be ashamed that they have allowed these things such abuse and harassment to occur, letting down so many of their pupils, without repercussions for the perpetrators.

Competition

Over the years, I have tried to explain my own definition of Conservatism to (extremely patient) ConservativeHome readers. It usually involves the phrases “ladder of opportunity” or “The Workers’ Party”.

Given the upcoming local elections, I would like to propose a challenge to readers: how do you explain what Conservatism means on the doorstep?  In other words, if a resident asks you while canvassing, “what is it to be a Conservative”, what is your reply?

The only conditions are that your answer:

  • cannot mention Brexit;
  • must not be more than two sentences; and
  • must also pass the Ronseal Test (i.e. it does what it says on the tin).

Comment below. With JRR Tolkien Day on Thursday, it seems only appropriate that the winner will receive a Tolkien novel.