Mario Creatura: The failure of social workers to protect vulnerable children is grim. But must not be ignored.

24 Feb

Cllr Mario Creatura is a councillor in Croydon and was the Conservative candidate for Croydon Central.

On Monday it was revealed that vulnerable children living in Solihull have to wait far too long for help. A probe of Solihull Council uncovered a ‘significant’ number of children who remain in ‘unknown risk’ due to assessment delays. It’s where six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was tortured and killed in June 2020.

A week ago, a report revealed that Bradford Council was struggling to recruit and retain social workers. 124 vacancies are being filled by 173 agency staff. It’s where 16-month-old Star Hobson was murdered in 2020. That meant the Council was stripped of control of its children’s services department.

On the south coast, vulnerable children in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole are being put at risk of harm by failing social services, with Ofsted last week rating the care as ‘inadequate’. The watchdog said “the fundamental building blocks required for children to get the right help at the right time were missing, almost in entirety”.

The same is true in Buckinghamshire. They were deemed inadequate in 2014 but the latest Ofsted review said improvements had been impeded by “acute and persistent” problems with recruitment and retention of social workers and managers, and poor social work practice. As a result, the help some children received was “fragmented and episodic” because they did not see the same social worker.

These are just a few of the well-publicised cases in the last fortnight. If you take the time to search, there are far too many examples of failures in children’s services up and down the country – yet it’s still relatively hidden, far too easily lost in the unrelenting noise of the news.

On 1st February, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) released a damning report exposing that police and Local Authorities are failing to properly identify and investigate child grooming gangs. They were looking at abuse in St Helens, Tower Hamlets, Swansea, Durham, Bristol, and Warwickshire, and found “extensive failures” in how Local Authorities tackled child exploitation, with police often unable to provide evidence on the extent of the problem. The inquiry said that the ‘child victims were often blamed by authorities’ – in just one example a charity revealed that child protection professionals were still describing abused children as “promiscuous” and “putting themselves at risk”.

Professor Alexis Jay, who led the investigation into child abuse in Rotherham, has said that child abuse and systemic neglect had become “even more of a hidden problem and increasingly underestimated” – she’s right, and it’s partly our fault.

These cases are all utterly heart-breaking, and the last thing that any of us want to contemplate happening in our communities, yet it’s clear that no part of the country is immune from the unimaginable terror of child abuse.

When heading into the office, do you really want to listen to stories of exploitation and neglect on the radio? Do you switch the station or just mentally tune it out? When reading the paper, do you scan past reports of child cruelty and torture? It’s understandable that you’d want to, I’m as guilty as the next man, but if we are to have any hope of helping these children then we must all redouble our efforts to accept how serious and widespread these tragedies are.

Only by adequately and comprehensively shining a light on institutional failures do we stand a chance of reforming the system and eradicating these horrors once and for all – that’s where Nadhim Zahawi comes in.

There is a Government review into the whole system currently under way, and based on previous statements it’s clear that our Education Secretary has the bit firmly between his teeth. It’s due to be published this Spring, and as well as tackling recruitment and retention, I hope it celebrates those Local Authorities and incredible social workers that have managed to turn things around. Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Barnet and others have all proven that poor children’s services can be revived. Every team that improves means more children being protected that previously may not have been. That’s worth unending enthusiastic praise.

With the Government working with authorities to improve national systems, and with all of us paying more attention and asking the right questions locally, we can collectively turn this around. It can be all too easy to leave the politics to the politicians, but if communities organise and rally to tackle injustices such as these then we can bolster top-down reforms with bottom-up scrutiny. We need that on this topic more than ever.

The IICSA report said that in some cases Local Authorities might be potentially downplaying the scale of abuse over concerns about the negative publicity, that they “don’t want to be labelled another Rochdale or Rotherham” – we cannot allow that to happen anywhere.

So read about it. Get angry about it. Discuss it with your friends and family. Demand that your local services get better, and do everything you can to push our Local Authorities and law enforcement to do more and do much much better.

Do that, and together we can start the painfully slow process of improving the lives of vulnerable children.


Emily Barley: Child sexual exploitation is not just part of Rotherham’s past

6 Jan

Cllr Emily Barley is the Leader of the Conservative Group on Rotherham Council. She is a councillor for Hoober Ward.

In May 2021, after I was elected leader of a brand new group of Conservative Councillors in Rotherham, one of the first things I did was set up a small working group to assess the current situation regarding child sexual exploitation (CSE) in the Borough.

What we found was extremely worrying. In just a few short months, we discovered multiple examples of active grooming and other activities that indicated children are still being abused by organised gangs. Multiple members of the public talked about having seen suspicious things in a few key locations, and a picture emerged of Asian men buying children ice creams and mobile phones, and children getting into strangers’ cars at night in what looked like a network of pick-up locations. Through casework, we came across instances of children who were at risk, and possibly already being abused.

In each case, we reported everything we heard and found to South Yorkshire Police, and to Rotherham Council.

What happened next made the situation move from extremely worrying, to dire. In response to our reports, nothing happened. When we did get an acknowledgement of the information we had submitted, the tone of emails was hostile and the implication seemed to be that the authorities didn’t want to know. In the case of one at-risk child, it took three months of chasing around various people and departments at the council for anything to be done.

We went on to speak with survivors of historic child sexual exploitation, and then to professionals who support recent, and in some cases very young, survivors. When we heard stories from the past, then compared them to what we had seen and what recent survivors said in their statements, I was sickened.

By November, I felt it was time to go public with what we had found. Too many times in the past people in Rotherham have been pressured into remaining silent, and I wasn’t going to let that happen again.

I published a report summarising our findings, giving as much detail as I felt was safe to avoid identifying victims and damaging future police investigations.

The response from the public was dramatic and immediate: we received a flood of further information on suspicious activities and possible pick-up locations, some confirming what we had already heard from others, and some completely new. People shared stories of things they had seen, how they had likewise reported things to the police and been ignored, and more survivors came forward to tell us how they too had been failed by Rotherham Council and South Yorkshire Police.

The response from the authorities was different. We were accused of playing politics with the issue, supplying poor intelligence with the implication that we had wasted police time, and of not knowing what we were talking about. Chris Read, the Labour Leader of Rotherham Council, and Dr Alan Billings, the Labour South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, were both keen to say that they took child sexual exploitation seriously. They both were also anxious to say that grooming in Rotherham has changed, and it is now mostly done by white men, online.

In the Full Council meeting where we presented a motion calling for action on child sexual exploitation, Labour councillors took turns to deride our work, accuse us of ill-intent, and say that I personally had damaged confidence in the police. Again, we heard the claim that everyone in Rotherham takes child sexual exploitation seriously, but nevertheless we were wrong. Then, en-masse, the Labour group voted to amend our motion, taking out its teeth and deleting a passage that said: “While RMBC has performed well in Ofsted and other inspections, what matters is not that inspections are passed, but that children are protected from some of the most horrific crimes imaginable.”

To know the history of Rotherham – of dismissals and denials – and watch it happening again, was devastating.

Just a few weeks later, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) published a report highlighting a number of continuing failings at South Yorkshire Police, including, among other things, the under-recording of crime against vulnerable children, the need for more training for specialist police officers, and failure to regularly update victims on their cases. The IOPC report quoted an expert who works with victims as saying that while things had improved in 2015-16, they had deteriorated since then.

The IOPC, not especially well-known for being critical of the police, said that they were “worried that despite multiple reports and recommendations, there are still areas of concern”.

Then, last week, The Times published details from South Yorkshire Police’s own internal report stating that in 67% of child sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham, the ethnicity of suspects is not recorded. The police report also said that Rotherham remains a hotspot for child sexual exploitation, and that fewer cases were being recorded possibly due to ‘competing demands’ to investigate other kinds of crime.

I know that the failings at South Yorkshire Police and Rotherham Council to tackle child sexual exploitation go much further than the limited scope of these two reports suggest.

Still, today, frontline police officers and council staff are not adequately trained to recognise when a child is being groomed and possibly sexually exploited – instead, abused children are often still treated as troublemakers. We have heard from council staff who are terrified of losing their jobs if they speak out about what is going wrong – they have been told by their managers not to talk about child sexual exploitation.

Proactive work to identify possible victims and perpetrators is practically non-existent here, and South Yorkshire Police only prosecute in 1 in 34 child sexual exploitation cases, one of the worst rates in the country.

It’s simply not good enough. These poor attitudes and constant failings are not good enough anywhere, but they’re especially not good enough in Rotherham. Children are being groomed, raped, and trafficked, because the authorities in Rotherham are still not doing their jobs properly.

I and my team are going to keep working to change that.

Robert Halfon: Dealing with child hunger isn’t a left-wing issue. The Government must, and can, do more.

15 Dec

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.

Today I hope to be speaking in a Westminster Hall Debate on the National Food Strategy organised by my friend and colleague, Jo Gideon MP.

Yet as the country once again grapples with a Covid-Christmas dilemma, many families and schools face a starker challenge of food hunger.

Lockdowns and school closures following the outbreak of the pandemic have had a devastating impact on children’s learning, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ofsted’s latest annual report shows that pupils lost 33 million days of learning. Indeed, at a recent hearing of the Education Select Committee, which I chair, the Education Policy Institute confirmed that for the most disadvantaged secondary school-aged pupils, they had gone from being 1.9 months behind in their reading to 2.4 months over the course of the year.

The Government is rightly boosting support for schools with nearly £5 billion of education catch-up funding targeted towards recovery through the National Tutoring Programme. But all the extra tuition in the world won’t work if children arrive at school without having eaten a nutritious breakfast.

There will be some out there who argue this should be the responsibility of parents and carers. In an ideal world, it should be, but sadly, in too many cases, this is not happening.

Can readers really stand in front of the single mother of three I spoke to, and tell her she should be denied temporary help and her children left to go hungry, because she had been made redundant due to the pandemic and can no longer afford to put food on the table?

The statistics are clear. We know that children who regularly eat breakfast achieve, on average, two higher GCSE grades than children who don’t. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that children in schools with breakfast clubs make two months additional academic progress. According to Kellogg’s (an organisation not usually associated with the left), hunger could cost the English economy at least £5.2 million a year through lost teaching time spent on dealing with the needs of hungry pupils.

So how, ask those rightly concerned about public finances, are we supposed to pay for this? I was not a great fan of the so-called ‘Coca-Cola tax’, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) introduced in 2018 on sugary drinks. It disproportionately affects those on lower incomes who might simply want to purchase the occasional treat for their kids. But it also generates a revenue of £340 million each year.

Given that the money was originally intended to fund healthy living initiatives, why not use it to fund hunger reduction programmes? That way no-one needs to ask the taxpayer for more money.

According to a new poll conducted by Opinium Research, two thirds of UK adults (66 per cent) would be likely to support the Government increasing spending on school breakfast provision for disadvantaged children through using unspent funds from the Coca-Cola tax.

Magic Breakfast have calculated that for £75 million more per year, funded by the sugar tax, the Government could ensure that 7,300 of the most disadvantaged primary and SEN schools could provide a free, nutritious breakfast to every pupil that needs it.

This would reach an estimated 900,000 pupils throughout the year, targeted to the most disadvantaged schools. This could complement other initiatives such as the deeper strategy to support Family Hubs championed by my colleague Fiona Bruce MP and given the additional £500 million provided in this year’s Autumn Budget.

Currently, the Department for Education’s new breakfast provision service reaches just 30 per cent of schools in high levels of disadvantage and invests just £12 million a year. By comparison last year taxpayers spent £380 million on Free School Meals vouchers.

For some, this may be difficult to stomach, but no Conservative opposed the £70 billion furlough scheme which was in essence, a welfare benefit to employers. And no Conservative opposed the £850 million Eat Out to Help Out scheme – again, another form of welfare relief to the hospitality industry.

Pro Bono Economics report the impact of free school breakfasts on Key Stage 1 pupils’ future economic contribution. If every pupil in disadvantaged areas received breakfast provision, this would translate into nearly £3 billion in long-term economic value.

If support can be made available to businesses feeling the brunt of the pandemic, then surely we could provide welfare in the form of breakfast clubs, holiday activities and free school meals to children.

Dealing with child hunger should not be a left-wing issue. Indeed, the Levelling-Up agenda has the potential to heal some significant social injustices in our country and provide every child with a hand-up to climb the ladder of opportunity.

Supporting high-quality education and increasing academic attainment in schools must be crucial to levelling-up but we can’t expect pupils to succeed on an empty stomach.

No-one has to ask the taxpayer for more money to do this – the money is waiting in Treasury coffers to be used. So as we look towards a new year, and a new start, let’s make free school breakfasts a new year’s levelling-up resolution.

John Bald: I hope that the reshuffle will help to reverse the disastrous increase in the number of children in care

26 Sep

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

Alex Burghart, the new Children and Families Minister at the Department for Education, is an expert in the field. His Policy Exchange report, A Better Start in Life, is the most comprehensive and penetrating analysis of the problems facing the care system that we have ever had, with an excellent range of practical approaches, including very early intervention through family hubs, improved organisation of social services teams, and support for young people leaving care, a third of whom are not in employment or training at 19.

Burghart found that the position of the care sector was “beyond breaking point”, and it has got worse. The number of children in care is now 80,000 (from 65,000 in 2012), while the number of secure units, for those at most serious risk of harming themselves and others, has fallen to  thirteen with none in London or the West Midlands. Ofsted judges the quality of secure homes to be generally good, and one, Barton Moss, has been judged outstanding for ten years in succession. On any one day, though, around 25 children are waiting for a secure home place, and any of them could quickly escalate into a tragedy and a national scandal.

One of Burkhart’s key recommendations is greater flexibility in provision, with increased use of boarding schools and smaller, specialised children’s homes that can offer a greater chance of stability. Instability is the starting point for entry to the care system, and the large number of moves experienced by many children makes it worse.

Prison costs an average of £44,600 per person, and one-third of prisoners have been in care. The education of children in care was one of the very few areas in which the last Labour government did good work, requiring each local authority to set up specialist teams to support children in schools. These were just beginning to develop their expertise when they were sharply cut under the coalition, a decision I still see as a big mistake. Most prisoners have problems with literacy, and I was pleased to hear this week that Jackie Hewitt-Main OBE, a pioneer in literacy services to prisoners, has joined the Conservative Party. Her Channel 4 programme with Sandy Toksvig is well worth watching, and Burghart would do well to meet her.

The Big Answer, Dame Rachel de Souza’s summary of responses to The Big Ask, her national survey of children, provides a broader context. 80 per cent of the 557,000 who responded were “happy or OK” about their schools, family and mental health, and some of the responses to schools are particularly positive.

“This generation likes school. Pupils clearly love their teachers, and the vast majority find schools nurturing and supportive,” we are told, and pupils are happy to be challenged rather than spoonfed. Removing the “OK” from the 8027 per cent gives a different picture, though, with just over half “happy” in most categories, and some showing cause for urgent concern, not least 25 per cent of girls worried about their mental health. The Commissioner wants more money for catch up, greater variety in the school curriculum to meet the needs of all pupils, and further extensions to family hubs.

Unlike the former “Tsar”, Sir Kevin Collins she wants to build on what has already been achieved and to target funds carefully to points of need, supported by evaluation. This is emerging as the Conservative approach to moving out of the pandemic, and it is correct. The Big Answer should inform policy across the political spectrum, and is well worth reading in full.

Dave Evans: We need a Department for Social Care to give the issue the focus it needs

13 Aug

Cllr Dave Evans is the Cabinet Member for Children and Young People and Lead Member for Children’s Services on Stoke-on-Trent Council.

Social care in England must sit as one of the longest running soars of any issue for any government. Governments of every colour have proclaimed that fixing social care is their top priority, only to find that other more politically sensitive areas such as education and health care have usurped this laudable statement. Although understandable, given their importance, it is this inherent failure to understand the impact the social care system, be it for adults or children, can have on these wider issues.

It is a sad fact, replicated across every city in the country, that when adult social care runs into difficulty; when practice is not robust; or when capacity in the system is unable to meet demand, pressure inevitably builds. Hospitals back up and are unable to discharge patients back to their home in a safe, sustainable way or into another safe setting. General practitioners are pulled from pillar to post dealing with minor ailments which should be done by other professionals.

Similarly, we know that poor social care for children impacts on other areas. Children with a poor home life are unable to utilise the education provided, irrespective of the quality of the school, its OFSTED rating or indeed the teaching. Nationally, 52 per cent of young people who are care leavers are not in education, employment or training. This must speak volumes about the essential role social care departments across the nation have on the economic success of our country.

Further, we know that poor quality social care and early intervention services completely change the life chances of many young people. The over prevalence of young people in care within the criminal justice system and the increased likelihood they will receive a custodial sentence – all indicators of the need to drive change in social care both for adults and children.

We have seen challenges in Stoke-on-Trent, both in terms of adults and children services. Both have received damning judgements by their regulators in recent years after decades of poor performance. Both judgements have stirred action. In the case of adult social care, previously we had one of the highest rates of delayed transfer of care (people unable to leave hospital after they were declared medically fit). After intensive work, this has been turned around making us one of the best performing areas. In the same vein, we received a challenging OFSTED rating for our children social care in 2019, pushing us onto an improvement journey which will not only improve our services, but reshape the way we prioritise them across our council and our city.

It is this experience that has led me to the view that for us to really pursue the levelling up agenda which the Prime Minister rightly speaks of, we need to give that equality of opportunity to all our residents regardless of background or circumstance. Social care needs more than just words, it needs to leapfrog up the political agenda and be truly recognised as the enabler of better public services and life chances. I believe that by creating a separate department within government, bringing together both children and adult services, would be the way to deliver this change. It needs to have its own budget; its own team working with local government to drive change in social care practice.

A separate department with its own machinery of state can bring this much needed focus, it will put social care where it needs to be, as an equal partner to health and education. By bringing the focus to adult care, working with providers, commissioners and local authorities, we can create better care arrangements, really get to grips with the home-first models adopted in places like Stoke-on-Trent and create a fit for purpose service which is both financial sustainable and able to provide the care we would want and need for our own loved ones, of which they deserve.

For young people the change can be even more significant. Giving the focus to a sector which has the potential to radically change the lives and prospects of young people by giving them a future, and in places like Stoke-on-Trent the economic and talent potential that can really drive forward our left behind communities. It is a reality that being a child in care becomes a life-defining event. In many cases, these young people are not given the support they need and aren’t prioritised in the way they need to be. Anna Longfield, the previous Children’s Commissioner said that the government ‘seemingly doesn’t know what to do with children in care’. A dedicated department would put a firm line in the sand to say we want more for our young people, they matter to us and we will be relentless in securing the best for them. We would truly be the one nation government I believe in.

Our party, the Conservative party, has always been, and will always be the party of opportunity. That opportunity must extend to everyone. We need to act now, and I’d urge the government to look at this seriously to make a significant change for those in our society that need it most.


Michael Goode: How to close the inspiration gap in schools between students’ ability and their outcomes

8 Aug

Michael Goode is a school governor and has been a young offenders mentor since 2017.

When school children are inspired and informed about the world of work they study harder, place a greater value on their subjects and are more engaged. This is especially true for underperforming students. Inspirational sessions with employers can also result in higher earning potentials and fewer young people becoming a NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Put simply, what children think they want to be when they grow up and how they reached those aspirations matters. Yet there is a serious inspiration gap between the schools doing an excellent job of expanding pupils’ horizons, through exposing them to a variety of careers, and those that are not.

Its scale is significant. When asking children what they want to do when they grow up, research in 2018 showed that about half expect to work in one of only ten jobs. Many of these (teachers, doctors, vets etc.) are typically grounded in a nineteenth or twentieth century view of the professions.

Research from 2020 also highlighted the disconnect between pupils aspirations and our economy, showing that over five times as many 17 and 18 year olds wanted to work in art, culture, entertainment and sport as there were jobs available. Nor are these career ambitions future-proofed, given that over 30 per cent of the jobs that UK teenagers want are at high risk of automation.

I have seen for myself what it is like to be on the wrong end of this inspiration gap. I went to a failing secondary school (now merged) where around 70 per cent of the students didn’t get their five A-Cs at GCSE. 

I was later told that I was the first person from that school to go to the University of Cambridge, which was shocking, given how bright so many of my classmates were. Looking back, I can see how little we had in terms of inspiration. We simply didn’t know what jobs were out there, what we could aim for, or how that would be affected by our grades.

At best, it was: “good grades will get you into a good university,” but there was no horizon beyond that point or alternative view of success. I remember discussing plans with classmates and hearing answers like “‘Ill work for my uncle so don’t need to study” or “I just want a family and will get a flat”.

Everyone is entitled to their own life plan but there was nothing to invite us to expand our horizons. We were all just left to reach our own conclusions. It sounds funny, but I remember thinking hard about what people would always need and settling on being a shoemaker.

Few of us become what we wanted to be at school (I’m not a shoemaker or an astronaut), but those initial aspirations shape our perception of what we can be and our appreciation of the value of education. And it is not hard to understand why survey after survey still show children having stereotyped and out of touch aspirations.

All this means that children on the wrong end of the inspiration gap are leaving school with limited or warped career expectations expectations which, crucially, have been built almost entirely outside of school.

Policy makers increasingly recognises this. One recent, substantial improvement is Ofsted’s inclusion of the Gatsby Benchmarks (tried and tested principles for expanding pupils’ horizons) in their inspection guidance.

Another is the establishment of the Careers and Enterprise Company, a national network designed to facilitate careers education and support schools.

But there is much more work to be done to ensure that career inspiration is at the heart of every child’s school experience. Especially because, as the Prince’s Trust has found, the disruption, uncertainty and misery of the last 16 months has affected young people’s aspirations.

The job to do now is to close this inspiration gap. The research shows that the best way to achieve this is to ensure all schools act early and often, showcasing different career paths and using these sessions to have broader conversations about jobs.

To do this we need to –

  • Make employee and career engagement an independent section in any Ofsted report;
  • Update Ofsted guidance to require schools to work with their Local Enterprise Partnership on employee engagement plans which are grounded in the area’s economy and future job needs;
  • Set out new guidance encouraging schools to use digital conferencing technology to connect with employers outside of their region;
  • Change Ofsted guidance to mandate termly opportunities for pupils to encounter the world of work, primarily through guest speakers and –
  • Update guidance to stress that inspiring employer engagement sessions must come before lessons around CV writing skills or training pathways.

None of this should add appreciable cost to the taxpayer, especially given the plethora of programmes out there designed to help pupils engage with different careers and industries.

The organisation Education and Employers has a fantastic program called Inspiring the Future and is leading the work in this field, while other initiatives focus on specific sectors: I volunteered for a program called Feeding Britain’s Future, which works to explain to students what careers exist in the food industry, while also providing general interview guidance and CV writing skills. One good side-effect of the lockdowns is that schools now have far more digital conferencing technology, which means volunteering takes less time and can reach pupils across geographical boundaries. There is plenty of goodwill and many programmes to tap into.

And for those of you thinking about volunteering, or perhaps with lingering doubts about the importance of this gap, I have seen for myself as a prison mentor how important inspiration is. Helping young offenders dream of a career on the outside, getting them fired up, and then building a plan to achieve that goal has been the most powerful tool in helping them feel that there is something tangible to roll their sleeves up and work for. What’s disheartening is that many certainly did not have this at school.

No young person should leave school, as my classmates did, without a good understanding of what jobs are out there and what they could do to get to them. Fantastic work has been done in this area, but an inspiration gap remains. That gap takes on a new importance, given how the past 16 months have disrupted education and dampened young peoples’ aspirations.

Let’s close this gap by connecting pupils to the world of work, expanding their horizons, and inspiring them to make the very best use of their time studying, confident that there is something to work for.

John Bald: A warm welcome to the Chartered College of Teaching

28 Jun

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

I first recall seeing Charlotte Leslie, as MP for Bristol North West, quietly standing her ground at Question Time, while Labour MPs bayed and snarled at her like tethered beasts. Around the same time, I attended a meeting she organised at the Royal College of Surgeons with the goal of setting up a similar organisation for teachers. I did not think it would work, partly because the RCS subscription –£618 pa – was too high. State funding would bring government control, much like Ed Balls’ MAs in Labour Education Policy.

I was wrong. Thanks to the clear thinking of its CEO, Dame Alison Peacock, and with support from the late Duke of Edinburgh, the Chartered College of Teaching is up and running, with a subscription below that of union membership, and is attracting young as well as experienced teachers. It is the only educational organisation whose focus is on teaching, rather than politics or management, and I have become a Fellow. We need to make sure that it is not dominated by a point of view, but Dame Alison understands the need for a broad church. Charlotte Leslie is to be congratulated on the most important contribution to education yet made by a backbench MP.

Equally good news is the extension of Amanda Spielman’s tenure as Ofsted Chief Inspector. Labour wrecked Ofsted in 2005-6, cutting inspection to a level that prevented teams from getting below the surface, giving it work it was not equipped to do, and ditching Sir Mike Tomlinson in favour of Labour’s Sir David Bell, who used inspection to enforce Blairite dogma. Among a multitude of errors, he dropped cameos of excellent teaching, and reports on subjects, from school reports. Thirteen years after the debacle, Spielman is restoring sense to the operation, and rebuilding the professional reputation of HMI, currently through a series of research reviews on individual subjects, backed by guidance on inspecting them.

I was a member of its working group on modern languages, and commend the science review, as an example of its clear and incisive approach, notably its uncomfortable conclusion that “many pupils leave school without a basic knowledge and appreciation of science.” Lest I appear sycophantic, I believe she made an important error, early in her time, when she said that it was not Ofsted’s job to get between teachers and their managers. If headteachers and senior leaders are not working effectively, Ofsted must gather the evidence and say so. No-one else can do this, and in some cases staff need protection from bullying. The idea of “every headteacher captain of their own ship” has led some to behave like Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh, and such behaviour needs to be stopped. Reports on Stantonbury International show that Ofsted is not only taking the necessary action, but following it up.

Ofsted’s work shows how difficult it is to improve schools, and there is at the moment no shortage of bad news. Last year’s examination fiasco is being repeated, possibly with even more serious consequences, and we still don’t know what can be done for next year, and indeed succeeding years. The fact that this is due to Covid does not let the government off the hook, and that picture of the Secretary of State with a whip on his desk did nothing for his reputation among education professionals. The excellent idea of providing individual tuition to those who need it, is hamstrung by the obsession with central organisation, with some providers taking scandalous fees for recruiting teachers that schools could more easily find for themselves, and giving “guidance” that prevents the tutor from focussing on the pupil in front of them; a repeat of Labour’s error in managing tuition in the later years of the Brown government.

For the record, and their information, a tutor needs to think what it is in a pupil’s knowledge and thinking that is preventing them from learning, and to provide the knowledge, and help them adjust their thinking, so that they can succeed. It really is as simple as that, and all the paperwork in the world will not achieve it if tutors are not helped to think effectively rather than being told what to think and do by people who have little, if any, experience of the work themselves.   Among my own pupils, a “dyslexic” 14 year old got 20/20 for a spelling test for the first time in her life last week; one was offered an apprenticeship as a teaching assistant; and a third invited to join her school’s history working group – and the parents of two more had congratulatory letters from their schools. More examples here, pro bono publico – if anyone still understands what that means.

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.

John Bald: Collins’ resignation shows the mistake of using Labour strategists to run Conservative policies

7 Jun

John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

Sir Kevan Collins’ resignation – see my warning on appointing Labour strategists to run Conservative policies –  does not disguise the need for action. But what action? And how do we ensure that money goes where it is needed – and is properly used?

Most teachers outside infant schools have had no training to teach reading, and can’t be expected to pick it up overnight. The training we have is focused exclusively on phonics. This is essential in the initial stages of reading in order to establish the principle of using the information contained in letters, but then needs to be modified so that children are not confused when there is no direct correspondence between letters and speech. An example last week comes from a nine-year-old who had been asked to leave a Steiner school because they could not teach him to read. “I can read three-letter words,” he said, “But not longer ones.” He then sounded out w a s to rhyme with has, and I had to explain why it did not. (Was is of Germanic origin, like water, warm and at least twenty other common words with wa, and its pronunciation has changed over centuries.) We then made progress.

The reasons why one size does not fit all are obvious. Some schools have moved almost all of their teaching online, with no great loss. Others, encouraged by union stonewalling during the first lockdown, have provided little or no direct teaching. Most private sector parents have protected their investment by ensuring that children sign in on time, but many whose children are most at risk of failure have not, and at worst have blocked communication with schools. Laptops are essential, and opposition criticism of slow provision has been unfair – these things take time – but not all parents know how to use them. Some children have all the books they could want, and others none at all. Library closures have not helped, but let’s not pretend that children with reading difficulties were beating down their doors.

So, the first thing we need is an accurate damage report from all schools, to be approved by their governing body, published on their website and followed up by Ofsted, who should be given the resources to do this work. Additional funding should then be allocated to schools on this basis, and they should be required to keep a separate account of how they spend it, and the outcomes for pupils. Reading will often be the main focus, and should be assessed by means of the phonics check for young children, and brief standardised tests for older ones. These should include understanding as well as accuracy, but should not require children to read between the lines before they can read what is on them. Maths should focus on knowledge of the arithmetic, tables, and other basic procedures that are needed to attempt secondary education successfully.

Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, has argued against more of what she calls “formal education” in favour of opportunities for children to meet socially. Reopening schools, though, is in itself the key to this, and it is wrong for breaks and lunchtimes to be so constricted that children have no time to play and socialise. Cutting breaks, combined with excessively long lessons, takes place because headteachers are not confident in controlling behaviour and ensuring safety when pupils move between lessons or have free time, and this needs to be addressed. Lunchtime and after-school clubs – I used to run them for homework, and invite parents to those running after school – are important, and provide avenues for the informal personal advice and support that meet children’s needs and build relationships.

They are not, however, a substitute for providing children with essential knowledge, skills, and understanding. Leading academy heads, from Sir Michael Wilshaw to Katharine Birbalsingh, David Moody and Louisa Lochner, understand this, and these are the people Nick Gibb and Vicky Ford should be looking to for advice, rather than to opponents whose educational goals are fundamentally different from ours. The Educational Endowment Foundation, first headed by Sir Kevan and now by a former Institute of Education Director who has declared that grouping pupils according to their learning needs and abilities is “symbolically violent”, is another example of the same error. Most parents want their children to succeed in school and to be happy, and neither will happen if they are left to sink or swim in mixed ability classes. If Green considered her approach in detail, she might find it uncomfortably close to that of Steiner.

Since 2010, Conservative policy has been based on the need to restore schools to their proper purposes, with Katharine Birbalsingh’s 2010 conference speech and the success of Michaela Community Academy, showing what needed to be done and how to do it. The only speech in living memory to compare with this is Neil Kinnock’s denunciation of Militant, 35 years ago, and Katharine’s was no less significant. She and her fellow pioneers have shown that a conservative solution to our educational problems is practical, effective, and affordable. We need to follow their example, and stop putting our opponents in the saddle, where they will do their best to take control of the horse.

Rachel Wolf: Tests for the delivery of levelling up, and levers with which to deliver it

10 May

Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She had co-charge of the 2019 Conservative Manifesto. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership and was founding director of the New Schools Network.

The Conservatives have won more stunning victories. Why?

First, the approach that drove the 2019 victory continues to deliver.  Second, vaccines and furlough have rewarded sitting governments: they have demonstrated competence, agility, and a willingness to spend.

The next great test won’t come for a while. Boris Johnson is Merrie England: he is the perfect leader for our summer of freedom. The economy will temporarily boom. Furlough won’t be withdrawn until September. Provided it stops raining, everyone should feel good.

But the Government will be acutely conscious that the next six months is also the last window for policies that can deliver by 2024. They will also know that, by Christmas, any lingering effects of what my partner and ConservativeHome columnist James calls ‘furlough morphine’ will have worn off. Some economic scarring is likely.

In other words, ‘levelling up’ now needs to get real. This is clearly the plan in the next few months, starting with the Queen’s Speech tomorrow, and then leading to the Levelling Up paper.

Truth be told, levelling up is a poor slogan. It has never done very well in our focus groups – people find it confusing and then, when it’s explained to them, mildly irritating. They don’t think they’re ‘levelled down’, they think they’re ignored. Equally, they find the idea that in four years they’re suddenly going to become London and the South East bizarre – it’s not what they want, and they don’t think it’s credible.

But the danger of ‘levelling up’ is not that it confuses voters, but that it confuses policy. Too many seem to equate it with transforming regional productivity, affecting every town in provincial England and Wales, within a Parliament. Obviously if that’s what voters wanted, they would be disappointed.

Of course regional productivity and innovation are vital, and longer term work should begin. But there are also shorter-term gains. Here are some important ones, some obvious levers, and ways to measure progress.

The high street test.

People care deeply about where they live. They ‘measure’ decline by their town or city centre. Here’s what you hear time and time again: shops boarded up; graffiti on the cenotaph; drug addicts; no monthly market; no decent playground.

In other words, it’s depressing to be in, feels mildly unsafe, and there’s nothing to do.

  • Levers: Business rates; soft infrastructure (local museums, libraries, playgrounds); events including markets and protecting green spaces; incentives for lower margin, often civic enterprises from soft play to youth clubs to sports. Decent bus services. Core public services in the town centre.

It is crucial that ‘economic investments’ (many of dubious effectiveness) do not trump these. Yes, it becomes easier to sustain this kind of infrastructure when people are wealthier. But it is worth remembering that many of these things existed when people were much, much poorer.

  • Tests: vacancy rates. Footfall. Number of events. And, of course, what people tell you about their town.

The safety test

Under-reporting of crime is a big problem, and there is reason to believe it disproportionately affects the Red Wall. Burglary, shoplifting and vandalism are particular problems.

Fraud, too, is a national problem with unequal consequences. Pensioners in Red Wall seats who may own their own homes but have very modest savings and no private income are particularly exposed to losing their life savings. Meanwhile, specific estates suffer from low police presence, and deprived coastal communities and small towns are the targets of County Lines.

In other words, crime is a particular issue in particular ways in these places.

  • Levers: the extra police will help. We also need to change the way in which Home Office funding is allocated and put more emphasis on localised funds like the Safer Streets Funds (which pays for things people want like CCTV). We need a massive, revived focus on fraud – it is getting insufficient airtime and attention.
  • Tests: the obvious source is surveyed crime, but the government also needs better ways to measure crime than annual face to face interviews,

The Opportunity Test 1: Skills and Jobs. 

Training and apprenticeships are a huge priority for working class people. They want local training opportunities – ideally leading to local jobs. We know there’s huge untapped demand for technical level skills in the labour market, and that many adults want to retrain. It remains one of the great challenges of our system.

  • Levers: the Queen’s Speech will create a proper lifetime learning entitlement. Now it needs more funding and less bureaucracy (which is already blighting other skills entitlements and apprenticeships).

On jobs, big changes will be long-term. As well as incentives for private sector investment, the public sector is an opportunity. People want trained people to stay or return home. A start – and one of the most popular things universities can support – would be incentivising public sector graduates (like teachers, nurses, and doctors) to stay in areas where recruitment is a challenge.

  • Tests: number of adults in retraining. Reduction in skills shortages in ‘technical’ roles. I’d include reduced reliance on foreign skilled labour in specific areas (such as parts of construction, who are presumably going to see investment, and therefore job opportunities through net zero and transport).

The Opportunity Test 2: Schools

Schools perform less well in many Conservative target areas. In the past, I would have said this was a moral imperative, but not an electoral one – school quality wasn’t a big vote winner. But I think there’s now greater desire from parents (and we’ll be publishing a report with the Centre for Policy Studies on this in the near future). They are more aware of how their children are doing, how far behind some of them are, and how differently schools responded to the pandemic.

  • Levers: incentives for teachers to go to underperforming areas. Renewed focus on academies and free schools. Ofsted inspections with a focus on standards. Continuing the drive on behaviour. There should also be new focus on the most gifted through programmes in schools and more academically selective sixth forms.
  • Test: Ofsted ratings (including number of failing schools); percentage getting five good GCSEs in core subjects (called the EBACC).

Finally, an overall measure: retention of people and inward migration – in other words, do people want to stay and move to the towns of England? It is implausible that this will transform in a few years, but you might start to see a little movement towards the end of the Parliament (and post-Covid home working will accelerate this effect if places are nice to live in).

You will no doubt have issue with many (if not all) of these levers and measures. There are some omissions (most obviously health). But my point is that it is possible to generate and measure progress within a few years. The job won’t be done, but people will see the path. That shouldn’t diminish the importance of the longer-term, even harder job of thinking through regional growth and productivity. But if you don’t get these areas right, Johnson and the Conservatives won’t be given permission to carry on.