The government’s response to the education select committee’s report into the educational underachievement of white pupils on free school meals was a huge opportunity to take bold and concrete action to tackle the growing inequalities in education. Sadly, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.
We all know that this government is full of hot air when it comes to levelling up. As the MP for Liverpool Riverside, I’m all too aware that we’ve seen a third of our city’s council budget cut over the past 11 years, slashing over £450 million from vital services for those most in need in our communities.
A 2019 report from IPPR North thinktank exposed that regional inequality in the UK is the worst of any comparable developed country, and it’s growing. The impact of austerity has compounded this, with the North West the hardest-hit region as extended lockdowns have damaged our local economy beyond compare.
The same is true for the pandemic’s impact on education, with schools in the North West seeing the highest rates of Covid-related absences up until after the October half-term when it was surpassed by other regions in the North and Midlands.
Child poverty levels in Liverpool are nearly 30 per cent, more than 10 percentage points higher than the national average. I hear heart-breaking stories every single week of families in my constituency struggling to make ends meet, of the desperate pressures that poverty places on a household.
These are the families that should have been at the heart of the education committee’s decision to look at levelling up education for left behind communities. Despite the best efforts of myself and Labour colleagues on the committee, we feel this wasn’t the case.
Week after week, we listened to education experts telling us that poverty and regional inequalities in the labour market – caused by decades of neo-liberal policies and underinvestment in de-industrialised communities – are the root cause of deepening inequalities in educational attainment.
However, the report itself and the government’s response does nothing to recognise these realities. Instead of reflecting on findings that school spending per pupil in England is now lower than before the Conservatives came to power – even despite the government’s post-pandemic funding boost – the report stokes divisions, pitting the white working class against other disadvantaged and marginalised communities.
The report itself makes reference to Liverpool as an example of left behind white working class communities. As a black working class woman, born and raised in the constituency I’m now proud to represent, this makes no sense to me.
Liverpool is proud to be the home of the oldest black community in Europe. The challenges I faced growing up in a small, terraced house, with an outdoor toilet and no bathroom, the eldest of five and daughter of a construction worker and a cleaner, were shared with diverse working class communities in Liverpool that surrounded the docks.
As a result of the above I was unable to support the education committee’s report, and instead put forward an alternative which called for an end to its divisive framing, and to focus instead on the root cause of the widening inequalities in education. These lie squarely with the draconian funding cuts to education and welfare services. Predictably, it was voted down.
If the government was serious about levelling up – including in education – it would urgently turbo boost funding commitments in the upcoming budget.
It would work with the trade unions to create an effective recruitment and retention plan for educators, abandon its nakedly ideological drive towards the marketisation of education, and provide a strategic economic plan to invest in good jobs across our regions and nations to truly level up left behind communities.
Instead, the government has no such intention. The response to the committee report is not worth the paper it’s written on.
Without an urgent and serious change of direction, left behind communities such as those I represent in Liverpool will continue to suffer from growing inequalities driven by cruel and unnecessary Tory policies.