Halfon: 'We must prioritise tackling social injustice'

Robert Halfon, newly re-elected as chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, outlines what he hopes to achieve

Robert Halfon

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Being re-elected as chair of the Commons Education Select Committee is a special moment in my political life. Not because of the status, or simply in order to have another job: I would not have stood for any other committee-chair post. 

But I believe that education is one of the most important influences in transforming the lives of young and old, right across the country.

The education ladder of opportunity, which I go on about often, describes precisely that. You bring people to the ladder, you help people climb up it, you’re there with a safety net if they fall. 

If they get to the top of that ladder, it means jobs, prosperity and security for themselves and their families.

Scrutiny of education policy

A good select committee, with enthusiastic and knowledgeable members (as we had in the previous Parliament), can act as a powerhouse of ideas, offering important scrutiny of the executive and the golden-goose quangos, like the Careers Enterprise Company.

We can’t make policy as a government can, but there is real opportunity to influence it. 

In the 2017-19 Parliament, the committee was able to bring the issue of alternative provision and exclusions right to the top of the education agenda, to recommend improvements to the support available for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities and to push, push, push (again) the need for a skills, FE and apprenticeship revolution.

Through having witnesses like Pepper the Robot, apprentices, foster children and children with SEND, we tried to make the education committee accessible for the many, rather than just for the chattering-classes few.

We also did not shy away from the issue of school and college funding, and managed to produce reports supported unanimously by both Labour and Conservative members. 

The government’s announcement of £14 billion extra for school funding is welcome news – a step in the right direction.

Social injustice

I hope very much that the new education committee, once formed, will put the need to tackle social injustice – as a vital part of climbing that ladder of opportunity – first and foremost.

There remain too many groups left behind in our education system, with disadvantaged pupils, on average, 18.1 months behind their peers by the time they reach GCSE. 

While the average national Attainment 8 score is 46.5, the score for pupils with SEN statements and education, health and care plans is 13.5. For looked-after children, the score is 18.8, and for white working-class pupils, it is 28.5.

Not only do we need to ask why these groups are being left behind, but also what change is needed.

While I am a supporter of free schools, I would be much more encouraged if a greater number of them were opening in the most deprived areas of the country, and were rooted in their communities.

Where they are set up as part of a large multi-academy trust, care must be taken to make sure that they preserve their own identities.

Apprenticeships and skills

Skills must also continue to form a major part of our focus, looking at the reform of the apprenticeship levy, the rollout of technical education and strengthening further-education colleges.

I am particularly excited this time around because, with so many new MPs across the House, we are faced with possibly the most pro-apprenticeship and skills Parliament that there has been for a very long time. I am hopeful that there is strong emerging cross-party support for a quality vocational curriculum.

Our committee must look at how best we can support the profession, and mentor strong leadership. After all, the government can build the best facilities in the world but without their most precious element – teachers – they are just empty shells.

Teacher shortages are rife, and pupil numbers are set to rocket. The number of secondary school children is projected to rise by 15 per cent between 2018 and 2024.

The profession must continue to attract the brightest individuals. The Conservative manifesto pledge to boost starting salaries to £30,000 should help considerably.

Teacher shortages

But we, the committee, must go further, by looking at targeted training bursaries, retention payments and salary bonuses to address subject-specific teacher shortages.

There have been some good reforms over the past few years: 1.8 million more children in "good" or "outstanding" schools, the proportion of six-year-olds passing the phonics check increased from 58 per cent in 2012 to 82 per cent in 2018. All this should be recognised.

But if it is true that a child living in one of England’s poorest areas is 10 times more likely to go into a sub-standard school than a child living in a wealthy area, something remains deeply wrong. 

We have created millions of apprenticeships since 2010, and yet around six million adults are not qualified even to level 2 (GCSE level).

We say we are preparing for the fourth industrial revolution. Yet PwC estimates that up to 28 per cent of jobs done by young people could be lost to automation by the 2030s.

Our job as the committee must be to iron out these contradictions and make sure that everyone has a chance to climb that ladder of opportunity. 

Strategy, skills, social justice, standards, support for the profession should be the rungs that support them on their way. 

Robert Halfon is chair of the Commons Education Select Committee

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Robert Halfon

Robert Halfon is a former apprenticeships and skills minister and chair of the House of Commons Education Select Committee.

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