The Education Committee has a full plate tackling childcare, teacher retention, school absence and more
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It’s just over six months since I sat down at the horseshoe as chair of the Education Committee, having pledged to launch inquiries into childcare and the early years, and the growing issue of persistent school absence
With summer recess around the corner, I’m proud to say my cross-party colleagues have undertaken detailed inquiries into both subjects and we are close to publishing our report on the former.
The early years sector is intrinsically important to young children’s development and parents’ ability to pursue their careers. The Spring Budget saw the government acknowledge this with a promise to double its annual spend on the sector. We recently pressed the children’s minister Claire Coutinho on delivering their multiple proposals. Among the issues we have been probing are the level of funding childcare providers will get when the government expands its 30-hours free childcare scheme from three-year-olds to nine-month-olds: how to support the diminishing number of childminders and the lack of awareness among parents about existing entitlements such as tax-free childcare.
We have heard of a crisis in the recruitment and retention of early years professionals and of nurseries shutting at an alarming rate. Time really is of the essence, and our report should have a positive role to play in shaping the government’s reforms.
We are also pushing ahead with our work on persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. School absence rates have spiralled since the pandemic: 24.2 per cent of pupils were persistently absent in the autumn term of 2022/23 (meaning a pupil missed 10 per cent or more of sessions). That’s more than double the 10.9 per cent rate in autumn 2018/19.
Ofsted has come under fire for the way inspections are carried out
Children’s commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza told the committee that low attendance is “one of the issues of our age”. Exploring the underlying causes, we’ve heard how growing demand for mental health services and insufficient resources for children with special educational needs and disabilities have contributed to a broader problem of unmet need. We’ve also heard how interventions like breakfast and holiday clubs can help. The committee is acutely aware just how damaging missing school can be to a child’s education and their future life chances, and we’re ready to question ministers on what policies will be needed to restore a positive culture of attendance.
In March we also launched an inquiry into teacher recruitment, training, and retention. It’s timelier than ever, with a record number of vacant teaching roles, one in 10 teachers quitting the profession in 2021/22, and the DfE missing targets to recruit teachers for sciences – including physics, maths, design and computing. There are concerns this is undermining the consistency and quality of education across the country. The committee will get to the root causes of the difficulties, examine the government’s interventions to address the challenges, and consider how our system compares internationally.
Next on our agenda is finishing our long-running inquiry into the quality of careers education in schools and colleges. Our report, due before summer, will make recommendations to ministers around improving work experience opportunities and access to apprenticeship providers and local businesses.
When we return from summer recess, this committee will get underway with its investigation into the way Ofsted inspects schools, and hold a pre-appointment hearing with the incoming chief inspector. While there is consensus along party lines that an independent inspectorate is needed to ensure high standards and children’s safety, Ofsted has come under fire for the way inspections are carried out; alongside questions about the usefulness of one-word ratings, from “inadequate” to “outstanding”. This committee is uniquely placed to hold a well-rounded examination of Ofsted’s work and make constructive recommendations to both it and the government.
Robin Walker is Conservative MP for Worcester and chair of the Education Committee
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