In the Budget debate this Autumn, I called for improved education funding at all levels. I have visited nurseries, primaries, secondaries and colleges, and I have been told by two separate headteachers that if funding does not improve, their school will be making redundancies, despite staff already being overstretched. Staff are going off sick due to stress. Some staff recruited internationally have trouble getting visas. The number of children with complex and special educational needs has increased, but schools do not have the resources to provide the support that those children need.
Despite pupil figures rising by 10% since 2010, teacher numbers have remained static, meaning pupil-to-teacher ratios have risen. Class sizes are bigger, and teachers are working harder and longer hours.
This is not just about schools. Nurseries will struggle to stay in business, according to the Department for Education’s own figures. When I visited a local maintained nursery recently, I was told that, without extra help, it will hit the buffers next April. This is completely nonsensical, when we know that for every £1 spent on early years, £13 are saved down the line. At the other end of the age range, sixth-form colleges, too, have been treated with disdain by the Chancellor and his team. Despite the call from the Sixth Form Colleges Association to increase the base rate for all 16 to 18-year-olds, it is currently frozen at £4,000 per student and £3,000 for 18-year-olds—it has been cut twice since 2010.
This is not just about funding either – my sense is that many schools are increasingly pressured to focus on exams. Many are forced to limit the subjects they offer due to funding pressures. It has been controversial over recent years, but schools have been able to give less attention to some subjects because of the English baccalaureate. I’ve raised this issue in Parliament; the decline of the opportunity to take part in arts education can have possibly unintended consequences. In recent weeks, teachers and academics have written to me with their concerns about their students’ opportunities to develop creative skills and self-expression, which are vital for getting them into work and university, for being part of the community and for expressing themselves.
I was a chair of school governors in the mid-1990s, and it felt just the same under a Tory Government then—what a change a Labour Government made. The current mean spending regime is not the way to create a workforce of creative, empowered and optimistic young people; it just tells them that the Government do not care.
Of course, in Cambridge, many people are extremely concerned about university funding and fees. I have opposed the extortionate £9250 fees that undergraduates are currently charged, and the scrapping of maintenance grants. It’s a disgrace that students who face the most financial pressure, have the most debt when they graduate. Universities are also threatened by the prospect of leaving the EU – a matter than I have continually pressed the Government on. I tabled amendments to the Data Protection Bill to support university research, and have asked questions about funding for research and Horizon 2020. In the Brexit Deal debate I called for protection of universities, as a shining star in the UK economy.