This morning I visited Rushmere Hall Primary School to meet Headteacher Paul Fykin. My first visit to the school. I was very pleased to be able to understand more about the support they provide pupils, particularly those with special educational needs. They have a higher than average number of children with education, health and care (EHC) plans and are known for being a mainstream school that provides great support for children with special needs. They also have a very unique unit for those with speech and language difficulties.
Always love visiting Primary schools in Town and seeing so many happy young faces.
Today I spoke at the launch of the new “Speak for Change” report by the Oracy APPG on the importance of developing speaking skills in school which featured The Oaks Primary School in Chantry, Ipswich. Oracy is the development of speaking skills which allows students to express themselves fluently and confidently.
The report shows just how key Oracy is to pupil’s development in school but also for their social and emotional wellbeing. It’s been clear from the dislocation a lot of young students have felt this year, that the social aspect of improving these skills cannot be understated.
I found it particularly concerning as highlighted in the report that 66% of primary teachers and nearly half of secondary teachers have said that school closures during the pandemic had a negative effect on the spoken language development of pupils eligible for free school meals. In my role on the Education Committee this year we have spoken at length about how to best support students in making up lost learning and I believe that making Oracy a key focus is crucial to this.
Evidence in the report also shows that Oracy’s benefits extend well beyond school to improving young people’s chances of securing their preferred education and training pathway as they leave secondary school and boosting their employment prospects. It is my belief that, on top of other areas of the curriculum, we need to make sure that all our young people have access to a language-rich environment. Unfortunately, there are so many talented young people from more deprived backgrounds who do well in school but when they get to interview for jobs don’t perform to their full potential. Every child in this country should get the oral communication skills that will see them thrive.
I have always been a keen advocate for the benefits of speaking skills throughout education. When I was at university, I was the mentor for the charity Debate Mate and actually ran a debating class in all girls schools in an underprivileged part of Manchester. I coached them for 6 months and then entered them into the regional final and saw how their speaking skills and their confidence grew over that time. It was incredibly fulfilling to see this positive transformation.
I was also really thrilled that The Oaks Primary school in Ipswich was included in the report and wanted to thank co-headteacher, Jeremy Pentreath, for his contributions. I visited them very recently and they explained to me all the work they have been doing. They have done a fantastic job at effectively implementing their Oracy programme and it is clear they are seeing the results. Staff have noticed the positive impact it is having on teaching and learning, particularly in areas such as vocabulary, Pupil Premium underachievement, engagement, positive learning behaviours and retention of facts.
I am now a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Oracy and am keen to help further the cause going forward.
Yesterday I led a Westminster Hall debate on the impact of Covid-19 on Education. I did this as part of my role on the petitions committee, where petitions which receive over 100,000 signatures are debated in Parliament.
This has been a topic of central focus throughout this year on the Education Select Committee, and in my role on the APPG for Dyspraxia. I have been fortunate to have been in regular contact with teachers and schools in Ipswich over the course of this pandemic to get a sense for how the pandemic has affected students.
I wanted to raise a number of points on behalf of the petitioners, but I also wanted to thank teachers for the incredible work they have been doing this year.
There is an important point that we shouldn’t make assumptions or generalisations about how students have been affected during this pandemic. Every single child has been affected differently by this pandemic and if we want to ensure that students who have lost out on learning over this year make it up, we need to ensure that catch-up is tailored to individual students and their needs.
It is also clear that the pandemic has taken its toll on student’s mental health. I really believe that we must be careful of the words we use for the sake of student’s mental health. Some of the words used by the media, for example, refer to a ‘lost generation’. We shouldn’t belittle the scale of the challenge, but we need to be positive about the future, and be sensitive to student’s anxieties that they will be able to achieve their full potential.
I also wanted to address SEND students who have been incredibly affected, particularly those who do not have an EHCP plan and so could not go into school for additional support but rather had to undertake online learning. These are unconventional thinkers who often need to be able to ask teachers for points of clarification or explanation on tasks and who might require more tailored learning to reach their potential. I’m encouraged by what I’ve heard about the new tutoring system, that a lot of SEND specialists have contributed to the programme. This is positive.
This is relevant to those students who do not speak English as their first language as well. We have a large Roma community in Ipswich who are not first language English speakers and lots of schools in our town were making tremendous progress with these pupils before the pandemic. Unfortunately, over the school closures there are concerns from headteachers that this has gone backwards so it is vital that these students are given the resources and attention to get back to where they were.
Some students also prefer to sit exams because they might be unconventional learners who consolidate their knowledge during revision and they rely on the opportunity to prove themselves in exams. With exams cancelled, this year has been hard on these pupils, and I believe that it is crucial that they are given a voice when it comes to how their attainment is assessed.
It is important that headteachers and teachers who know students best are given as much flexibility as possible to decide how best to assess student’s attainment, whether it is in mock exams, in class assessments, or coursework. It is also vital that the students themselves are able to feed into this decision to ensure that they get the opportunity to reach the grades they deserve.
Last week I spoke in a backbench debate on education on the Government’s plan for assessments. I welcomed the reopening of schools on the 8th March.
In terms of SEND students, many have struggled with online learning. As I know from my own experience, many people with dyslexia and dyspraxia value examinations because they do not learn in the same way as their peers. Being unconventional learners, they have the opportunity to surprise people in exams because they can consolidate their knowledge in their own way. I believe that when teachers are deciding whether their pupils should do tests or not, the pupils should feed into that decision as they may want their attainment to be reflected by in-class assessment. I would like to see more clarity from the Government on whether schools will make these decisions for all their pupils collectively or whether different methods can be used for pupils with different needs.
I also noted that in terms of the impacts school closures, the most disadvantaged have been the hardest hit. This especially applies to pupils from the Roma community in Ipswich who do not have English as their first language. Lots of schools in Ipswich were making tremendous progress with these pupils before the pandemic but unfortunately rates of participation in online learning has been lower amongst this group than the average and as a result there are concerns that progress has gone backwards. Therefore, when we talk about ensuring pupils catch up, an element of that is providing resources to schools to help these kids get back to where they were.
I also expressed my excitement about the FE white paper and my desire to see Suffolk included in the Trailblazer Schemes for the new skills improvement plans. I have spoken to so many businesses recently who tell me about the jobs they have coming down the pipeline who want to be able to capitalise on a local skills base.
On the Education Select Committee last week, I wanted to tackle the issue of the unequal schools funding formula which puts pupils in more deprived areas of our town at a disadvantage compared to their peers in other areas of the country.
There is serious funding inequality when it comes to schools in more deprived pockets within largely prosperous counties. The money these pupils receive per head, as is the case within Ipswich, can be multiple times lower than their counterparts from less prosperous counties and this needs to change.
My calls for further explanation of this was joined by David Simmons MP who cited the fact that a child with pupil premium (the extra grant given by the Government per student from the most-disadvantaged backgrounds) in Shropshire, gets less money than a child without the pupil premium in Birmingham. This is almost certainly the case for a child in Ipswich as compared to Birmingham as well. It is completely unacceptable that a child from a low-income background in Ipswich should receive any less funding than a child from a low-income background in any other part of the country. And they certainly should not be receiving less funding per head than more well-off pupils in other parts of the country.
Another issue is the funding of SEND in Suffolk. Funding for special school places in Suffolk are also unacceptably lower than neighbouring areas. In Norfolk, a specialist placement for a child with autism is funded at £27,000 per year, but in Suffolk that number is £19,500. I believe that this disparity must be addressed. I wrote the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson about this funding disparity in January and I will be writing to him to push all of the points raised on this issue at the Education Committee.
It is very clear to me that when it comes to funding our schools, there needs to a formula in place that is sensitive to the specific needs of each child.
I asked the Education Secretary a question yesterday about the quality of remote education. I appreciate that not all online classes will be “live” but I do believe that a good proportion should be.
As always I was keen to ensure that those with special educational needs get the support they need. Pupils with EHCP (Education and Health Care Plans) are eligible to come into school at the moment but many who have special educational needs but don’t have an EHCP plan are not.
A number of teachers and parents have made clear to me how important it is for these pupils to have a certain level of online classes that are live, particularly those with speech and language difficulties. Pupils with special education needs often process information very differently and therefore having a live lesson does provide them with the opportunity to question and make it clear if they’re struggling with a given topic. Ultimately though I do understand why a mixture of live and pre-prepared is likely to be the most common outcome at most schools.
I can also see mental health benefits to a proportion of the classes being live. Tackling loneliness and providing a certain level of human engagement (though remote) with their teachers and classmates.
As you will see I also pay thanks at the start of my question to all teachers in Ipswich who I appreciate are operating in very difficult circumstances. The majority are balancing continuing to teach some classes in person at their school with the children of key workers and vulnerable children with the online classes that they are also having to lead.
I can understand fully why it may be the case that not all online learning providing by schools is live but I am keen that a good proportion is.
None of this is a substitute however for real time lessons which is why I’m keen for all schools to reopen again as soon as it’s safe for them to do so. Ideally after the February half term.