School cuts campaigners pen open letter to Hitchin & Harpenden MP

Hitchin & Harpenden Parents Against School Cuts campaigners Kay Tart and Charlotte Fairbrother (pict

Hitchin & Harpenden Parents Against School Cuts campaigners Kay Tart and Charlotte Fairbrother (pictured with June Young) have penned a open letter to MP Bim Afolami. Picture: HPASC - Credit: Archant

Campaigners from the Hitchin & Harpenden Parents Against School Cuts group have penned an open letter to constituency MP Bim Afolami after meeting him on Friday.

Hitchin & Harpenden MP Bim Afolami. Picture: Chris McAndrew

Hitchin & Harpenden MP Bim Afolami. Picture: Chris McAndrew - Credit: Archant

In the letter, Kay Tart and Charlotte Fairbrother from the group – which has been expanded to include Harpenden – raise their concerns ahead of an open meeting planned for October 10.

The letters reads:

Dear Mr Afolami,

On Friday 14th September we met with you at your surgery at St John’s Community Centre in Hitchin, to discuss Hitchin Parents Against School Cuts, and our campaign. We were grateful for the opportunity to speak with you, and we thank you for your time in seeing us. However, we were left feeling very disappointed and frustrated by your responses. We felt you were dismissive and failed to listen to or hear our concerns.

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Ultimately, we felt that your message to us was that schools had become accustomed to having more money, too much money, and consequently the funding cuts hurt more. We referred to Damian Hinds’s recent interview in the TES in which he offered schools ‘no hope of further funding’; you didn’t dispute this, but said that Damian Hinds was simply managing expectations.

In the meeting you stated that you had read all of the information. However, when we told you that in schools in Hitchin and Harpenden the average loss per pupil is £200, with one school in your constituency facing a staggering £685 loss per pupil, you seemed surprised, but not particularly concerned. You responded that schools have 1.5%-2% more money. We believe that current funding levels from the government are simply not enough to cover increased costs for the changing resources required by schools. We believe that current funding levels from the government are not adequate to accommodate the increase in pupil numbers. We believe that current funding levels from the government will mean that schools cannot afford the increase in teacher pay, without making further and desperate sacrifices.

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You told us at the meeting that you will arrange for one of the government’s consultants to meet with Hitchin Heads to advise them on how they can better manage their budgets and make further savings. Why is money being spent on expensive consultants, who, while they may have a considerable level of expertise in advising about money management, will most likely have very little REAL experience of the realities and sensitivities of running a school?

Upon reflection, we assert that it is in fact the government who should be looking at how they themselves have mis-managed the budget, by not allowing sufficient funding in order for schools to operate effectively in the first place.

During the meeting, you also told us that research shows that Teaching Assistants (TAs) don’t add any value to educational outcomes. You followed this up by saying that when you were at school there were no TAs. When we mentioned this to our group membership, someone astutely pointed out that having no TAs in the classroom in the past is exactly why so many children were ‘lost’ in the system and didn’t make progress. You did acknowledge the growing number of children with recognised SEN requirements, but we feel you failed to see the wider benefits of TAs. You also did not mention the more current research which demonstrates the link between TAs and pupil attainment. Some of your information appears to us to be outdated or inaccurate.

In the meeting we said that we believe if the government considered funding for schools to be a vote winning issue then they would do something about it. Mr Afolami, the situation in our schools both locally and nationally is at crisis point! At the next general election, the issue of funding for schools may well become a vote winning issue.

One purpose of our meeting with you on Friday, was to discuss the opportunity for our group and the wider community to meet with you in a more public setting. We briefly referred to the meeting you held with parents at The Priory School in early July this year. You said that you would be willing to arrange and attend a meeting with a primary school focus, and that this would happen “this side of Christmas”. We welcome this offer, and we will happily be instrumental in making this meeting happen.

However we were left bitterly disappointed when you told us you would be unable to attend our Open Meeting on 10th October. You said you are unable to attend due to the requirement to be in parliament. This is particularly frustrating, as the date was originally suggested by your own team! We have also been waiting nearly two months for you to confirm your attendance, despite several requests about whether you could or could not.

This week, Anne Main, the MP for St Albans is due to attend an open meeting organised by parent-led group “Fairer Funding for All Schools, St Albans”. We are very sorry that you won’t be at our meeting, and it is our opinion that you will be conspicuous by your absence. We know that a large number of our group and others, will be very disappointed and feel let down by the news that you will not be there.

Consequently, we will be extending an invitation to our meeting to the Executive Member for Education, Libraries and Localism at the County Council, however we would urge you to re-think your availability on the 10th and encourage you to make it a priority to attend our meeting.

We hope that you will make time to hear the concerns of your constituents on this important matter.

Kay Tart and Charlotte Fairbrother, Hitchin & Harpenden Parents Against School Cuts

In response, Mr Afolami wrote:

I would like to take this opportunity to respond to the letter sent in by Hitchin & Harpenden Parents Against School Cuts this morning regarding my meeting with them on Friday.

Firstly, let me state that my number 1 priority is the education of our young people in the constituency. It is my passion. I made my maiden speech to Parliament on this very issue. See an extract of my speech below.

“I come to this House with no gilded lineage but as a child of immigrants. My mother, born in Britain but growing up in Nigeria, became a pharmacist. My father, born and bred in Nigeria, is now an NHS doctor. Both came to this country in the 1980s in search of a better life. In particular, they believe that a good-quality education is key, not just for giving a child – an individual – a decent start in life but as the foundation of the future health and prosperity of our society as a whole…

And it is education that I believe to be at the heart of everything. I believe we can do better. During the election campaign there was a lot of debate in my constituency, and I know in many others, about whether school funding is adequate and about the excessive bureaucracy that teachers still have to put up with. I happen to think that we need more of the former and less of the latter, but the debate on education needs to be bigger than that, more fundamental.

I promised my constituents that I will bring a relentless focus to that area, and I intend to do so every single day I am in this House, and it starts with fairer funding for every school. In many areas, yes, that will mean more resources.”

Since being elected just over a year ago, I have met every single headteacher (both primary and secondary), visited almost every school, and I spend time with the headteachers regularly. The young people I meet have been a source of real inspiration; I have got to know many of the local secondary students, and have heard from them about their hopes for the future, and what they want from their local area. I have been helped in this by the several young people from our constituency (ranging from 13 to 19) who have done work experience with me in my office over the past year – I believe strongly in ensuring that this sort of opportunity is available to all, not just to the well connected.

School Funding

Our schools are well funded. We spend well above the EU average. The British government spends more (on a per pupil basis as well as an overall amount) on state education than South Korea, Japan, Germany, the United States, Spain, Luxembourg, Italy as well as many others. That statement applies for education at every level – primary, secondary, and further/higher education.

To analyse the UK in its own terms, British government spending on education is now 50% higher, in real terms, than it was in the year 2000. To put it another way, British schools now have 50% more to spend, per pupil, than they did in the year 2000. The additional investment of £1.3 billion for schools and high needs across 2018-19 and 2019-20 announced last year, on top of the schools’ budget set at Spending Review 2015, means that per-pupil funding is being maintained in real terms between 2017-18 and 2019-20.

Having said this, I do recognise the pressures that our schools have faced on funding in recent years, and I will continue to put this case to the Treasury as we come up to the new spending review. A reasonable and proportionate increase in spending would make a huge difference to our local schools, and I am making that case.

The letter published in this paper is an inaccurate, selective and misleading account of a meeting I had last Friday with Kay Tart and Charlotte Fairbrother from Hitchin & Harpenden Parents Against School Cuts. Firstly, there were clearly party-political motives present in this meeting and it is apparent to me that the leaders of this group (not necessarily the members) are Labour Party supporters and are simply using this issue to attack me as a Conservative.

They claim that my message was that “schools had become accustomed to having more money, too much money and consequently the funding cuts hurt more”. This is completely untrue, I do not think that any school can have enough money, there is always good that can be done. What I said was that the money available for schools has to be balanced against other priorities, like the NHS. Once the new funding formula is introduced, schools throughout the constituency will receive a 1.9% increase in funding. If any school faces any losses financially per pupil I will rightly be concerned by this.

They repeat that “we believe that current funding levels from the government” mean a whole raft of negative outcomes for schools, unfortunately belief and ideology are not the same as facts. They have failed to address my key point that schools funding is, in real terms (meaning after taking inflation into account), 50% higher than the year 2000. Schools are better funded than in most of the EU and the Western World. Of course, schools can do more with more money however I do not believe that schools are unable to continue to provide a fantastic service to the pupils of this area. Results and outcomes are continuing to improve.

I would just like to clarify that I did not say “research shows that teaching assistants (TAs) do not add any value to educational outcomes”. As I acknowledged, there is definitely a benefit that TAs bring to SEN pupils in particular, and I want to do some more work with the Department of Education to see how we can provide more specialist help for those children, especially as in our area the number of SEN children is growing very quickly.

I can confirm that my office will be arranging a meeting with a focus on primary schools in the coming months, with details of this to be confirmed shortly.

I welcome any member of my constituency to write to me addressing their concerns and I would be more than happy to provide them with a detailed response.

Yours sincerely

Bim Afolami

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