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Robert Halfon MP: Throughout our education system, students must be prepared for the world of work

4 min read

The Education Select Committee, which I chair, has two key motivations underpinning all its work. Firstly, to address social injustice in our education system. The second, to scrutinise the government’s work on skills as it looks to reform schools and post-16 education.

The two themes often overlap. Since the beginning of this Parliament, our committee has held inquiries looking into exclusion, special needs, prison education and the education system as experienced by white pupils from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Skills have a role in reducing social inequality and making them accessible to the most disadvantaged will act as a critical rung on the education ladder of opportunity – central themes in the committee’s current post-16 inquiry, and our future inquiry on careers education.

Skills, social justice, standards and support for the profession – these are the four cornerstones of our education system

The introduction of the new Schools Bill has seen a lot of discussion centred around the level of intervention from the department. Of course, more autonomy for schools would be a welcome move, but such arguments could be said to be dancing on the head of a pin. Instead, more focus should be placed on the cohorts who are consistently underperforming.

We know that disadvantaged groups are 18 months behind their better-off peers by the time they take their GCSEs. Only 17 per cent of free-school meal (FSM) eligible white British pupils achieve a Grade 5 (good pass) in their maths and English GCSE. This amount is roughly the same for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), but for children in care or excluded pupils, this rate drops to just seven per cent and five per cent respectively. 

Our committee has made a number of evidence-based recommendations with these objectives in mind. Concluding our inquiry into white FSM-eligible children, it called on the government to tailor funding for pupils at a local level – starting with reform of pupil premium and to support family engagement through the newly established Family Hubs network to tackle multi-generational disadvantage.

There are a number of positive policy proposals in the recent SEN Green Paper, but there have now been more reviews than casting sessions for a Ben Hur movie. Positive change could be enacted tomorrow by taking up our committee’s recommendations to appoint a neutral advocate and empowering the Local Government Ombudsman to look beyond the school gates and ensure that parents and their children are being provided with the help they need to wade through the current treacle of unkind bureaucracy.

Throughout our education system – right from early years – the focus must be on outcomes and whether the current curriculum is adequately preparing students for the world of work. The government is placing a welcome focus on skills demonstrated through the Skills and Post-16 Education Act, the £3bn of spending commitments and the Lifetime Skills Guarantee but it is high time that this important area was addressed in full. 

As part of our Post-16 Education inquiry, we have received numerous pieces of evidence supporting the introduction of a Baccalaureate-style system – one used in 150 other countries – which focuses on achieving high standards in skills and knowledge, rather than creating a false dichotomy of debate which seeks to prioritise one over the other. 

As the Schools Bill progresses, there must be an open discussion about the recent proposals in The Times Education Commission’s report, including the recommendation to introduce a British Baccalaureate – and whether the pre- and post-16 education systems should be broadened to include vocational and technical skills, oracy, financial education and communication skills alongside traditional academic learning. These “skills” must not be seen as “soft” or “woolly”, but rather real-world assets necessary to help pupils secure good jobs in the future. 

Skills, social justice, standards and support for the profession – these are the four cornerstones of our education system, and the four pillars for the committee’s work going forwards.

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

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