Robert Halfon: The next occupant of 10 Downing Street will need to face up to our country’s skills problem

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

May Days: Theresa May has shown admirable resolve in her education reforms – but there is still much to do to tackle the burning injustices in our society, writes Robert Halfon

'The educational ladder of opportunity shouldn’t terminate abruptly when someone leaves school, college or university'
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When Theresa May stood on the steps of No 10 and pledged to create a country that worked for everyone, there was huge optimism about her mission to end the burning injustices that exist in our society.

Three years on and looking back on the legacy of the prime minister’s efforts to create a better Britain for all, there are achievements that should not be forgotten.

Firstly, recognising the scale of the problem which had emerged with funding for the further education (FE) sector, she commissioned the independent Augar Review with an acknowledgement of the powerful role FE can play in transforming people’s lives and growing the economy.

The prime minister also demonstrated admirable political resolve to overhaul technical education and keep on track T-levels, which will provide a fantastic groundwork for our young people in the skills needed by employers. On top of this, there has been a shifting balance from teacher recruitment onto retention, to stem the tide of valued and experienced hands leaving the profession.

However, despite these achievements, there remain huge challenges if we are truly to ensure that everyone has the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity and get on in life.

During the prime minister’s tenure, the Education Select Committee has been clear in our priorities. Promoting social justice has been at the heart of our work and it is clear that there is much still to be done to tackle the injustices that remain.

In our schools, far too many pupils are being let down by a system that too readily condemns them to exclusion and the Committee has heard of the overlap in the experiences and vulnerabilities of excluded young people and those involved in knife crime.

Edward Timpson has just delivered his report on school exclusions, following a review set up by the prime minister, and it is important that her successor listens to the recommendations and does more to ensure that schools remain accountable and young people receive early support to keep them safe.

The next occupant of 10 Downing Street will also need to face up to our country’s skills problem, with FE continuing to be the poor relation in the education sector. Again, the recent review of post-18 education and funding made many welcome recommendations on strengthening FE, but it is time for the government to deliver on rocket-boosting degree apprenticeships, to tackle social disadvantage and help meet our nation’s skills needs.

The Committee’s latest inquiry on adult education and life-long learning will be looking at what more can be done to support learners to get the skills they need to thrive in the every-changing workplace. The educational ladder of opportunity shouldn’t terminate abruptly when someone leaves school, college or university.

There will be further challenges for the new prime minister. Our SEND inquiry, examining reforms to the way children and young people with special educational needs receive support, has been one of the biggest pieces of work ever undertaken by a committee. There are clearly significant problems with the system – not all children are getting the right support and the government will need to take notice when we make our recommendations.

A new beginning at the top of government is also the ideal time for a step-change in how we fund our schools and colleges. Despite the extra money for schools under Theresa May, there have been rising cost pressures and we have been making the case for a ten-year sustainable funding plan for education, similar to that for the NHS.

As Theresa May departs Downing Street for the final time, there is still much more to be done to extinguish the burning injustices that persist in our society. The new prime minister must take on the mission to ensure everyone has the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity and we can truly say that we have a country that works for all.

Robert Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education Select Committee