SPEAKING IN THE DEBATE ON EDUCATION, 29 JANUARY

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): I very much welcome this debate and the emphasis that my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) has placed on teaching standards and quality. Teaching is a tough job, and those who devote their lives to helping children deserve our respect and admiration. I think we all remember the particular teachers who inspired us. I remember Jack McLaughlin, my English teacher at Holyrood secondary school in Glasgow, who taught me more about the love of words than anyone else I have ever met. So, good teaching can be inspiring, but poor teaching leads to lack of opportunity and to unfulfilled lives.

Just before Christmas, Ofsted produced its annual report. In it, a table shows the proportion of children in each local authority who go to good or outstanding schools. It shows that primary school children in my local authority area of Wolverhampton have a lower chance of going to a good or outstanding school than those living anywhere else in England. If that is not a call to action, and a call to arms, I do not know what is. Wolverhampton does have some good and outstanding schools, and some excellent, inspirational teachers. In places, it also has strong leadership that is intolerant of failure. As the Ofsted table starkly illustrates, however, it does not have enough of those things. That means that too many local children are not getting the education they deserve and are being denied the opportunity to make the best of their lives.

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend explain why Ofsted has not intervened in that case?

Mr McFadden: I am coming on to what I would like from Ofsted in that situation. Nothing is more important for opportunity and social mobility than a good education. Mediocrity, low ambitions and a weary acceptance of failure cut off opportunity for young people. We need a strong determined response to this report and its verdict. What should the elements of that be? First, there is no point in shooting the messenger. We cannot confront a problem if we deny that we have one. We must accept the verdict and vow never to be in such a position again. Improving education standards should be accepted as the single biggest challenge facing the city. It should become a cause that unites everyone—schools, the local authority, the university, employers and the local MPs.

Secondly, we must set this discussion about deprivation and the attainment gap in the right context. There is an attainment gap. Of course teaching kids from a deprived background is tougher than teaching kids from homes full of books and with the social capital to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central referred.

It can never be right to blame deprivation for educational failure. There are plenty of areas in the Ofsted report with deprivation levels as high as, or higher than, Wolverhampton that have significantly better achievement. Apart from the Ofsted table, there is another more fundamental reason why we cannot use deprivation as an excuse—it absolves us of the responsibility to act. It writes off the children and gets everyone else off the hook, and that is a dereliction of duty to children who need, more than anyone, the opportunity that a good education brings.

I do not believe that children in Wolverhampton are any less able than children from anywhere else. They should never be written off or be told, as I have been told, that“our black country kids are not that academic.”I will never believe or accept that.

What are the other elements of a turnaround? We need good leadership. We know that the people who know best about turnarounds are the good leaders already in our schools. We need more of that, and we need the good schools to mentor the struggling ones to help them raise their game.

Bill Esterson: My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) talked about London Challenge and the huge success that happened right across London. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way of addressing the problems in Wolverhampton would be to have that whole system and a thorough investment in skills?

Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): They have had it.

Bill Esterson: The hon. Gentleman says that they have had it. I am talking on a much more extensive scale.

Mr McFadden: I agree. The previous Government had a black country challenge for precisely those reasons, and the Secretary of State did not continue with it, which is a great shame given the support that we need.

Apart from good leadership in schools, the second thing we need is that the local authority function to challenge standards and improve must be carried out with passion and a determined focus on school improvement.

Thirdly, we need curiosity and a willingness to learn from what has worked elsewhere. If that means changing the way we do things, then so be it. The only vested interest that matters in this is the vested interest of the pupils themselves. Nothing should get in the way of improving the opportunities for them.

The school environment has changed. The clock cannot be rewound. The future landscape will inevitably be a more varied one, and we must learn from the turnaround experience elsewhere.
My fourth point is directed at the Minister so that she addresses it in her wind-up. Areas that accept a verdict, such as that of Ofsted, as I have urged Wolverhampton to do, also need help in turning things around. There is not unlimited school improvement and turnaround capacity in every part of the country. As I said earlier, we should not shoot the messenger. However, it is not enough simply to pass damning verdicts and then walk away. If Wolverhampton responds by saying that it accepts the verdict in the Ofsted report, understands that there is a problem and wants to turn things around, the Department for Education and Ofsted have a duty to play their part in helping the city to do that.

I have already arranged to meet the regional head of Ofsted to discuss the matter in the next couple of weeks and I know that relations between the Department and Ofsted have been damaged by the events of the past week. I want the Minister to address this specific point: will she and the Secretary of State back Ofsted in a role that involves not just passing verdicts on schools but helping areas such as the one I represent to turn the situation around and improve opportunities for the future?

Michael Gove: The right hon. Gentleman is giving an outstanding speech and I agree with almost every word that he has said. He has given me the opportunity to place on record my admiration for the work that Sir Michael Wilshaw has led to ensure that HMIS—

Kevin Brennan: Who briefed it?

Michael Gove: I will ignore that comment.

I am grateful to Sir Michael for the work that he has done in ensuring that HMIS can play a role in school improvement. Another thing we need to do is ensure that we have more national leaders of education deployed. If the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) would like to invite me to visit his constituency to ensure that that work can advance, I would be delighted to accept.

Mr McFadden: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his intervention, and as he has expressed his admiration I would encourage him to tell his Department and those who work for him of that too.

I believe that we should respond to the report and not with the usual series of excuses for educational failure, but by saying that the only interest that matters is that of the pupils themselves. They deserve the best, they deserve the highest ambitions and they must never be written off. I hope that Wolverhampton is up for the challenge, but the city will need help to turn around. I hope that the Secretary of State will follow through on what he has said and give us the help we will need.


Hansard, 29 January 2014

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