Carol Monaghan – 2020 Speech on Education

Below is the text of the speech made by Carol Monaghan, the SNP MP for Glasgow North West, in the House of Commons on 14 January 2020.

I welcome you to your new position, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am slightly concerned by the closing remarks of the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) about not paying the blindest bit of attention to those on the Opposition Benches. The purpose of the Opposition is to scrutinise Government, and a Government that has a free rein to do what it wishes is a very dangerous tool, so we should all be aware that while we might not agree politically on different issues, we should be listening and paying attention to points raised, regardless of where they come from.

On education, the Queen’s Speech had a lot of small promises that are not going to deliver the punch required. In our considerations, we have to ask whether education is about personal gain or societal good. If it is about personal gain, why should we be that bothered? If it is about societal good, education must be from early years to employment and must be provided by Government, regardless of the path a young person takes. Every year round about the time of national exam results there is a great campaign called NoWrongPath. There is no wrong path—different young people will take different routes to achieve what they want—but we must be there to support them, financially and in other ways, because this is not just about getting young people to university; it is about positive destinations and employment. Some 93% of young people in Scotland achieve positive destinations, which is the highest in the UK, and that means employment, training and tertiary education. I talk about tertiary education, rather than higher and further education, because in Scotland the lines are blurred, and should be blurred regardless of where someone lives in the UK. It should not be about HE being the gold standard and FE being something different. We need to work in collaboration, and all types of tertiary institutions have their place.

The investment in FE in the Queen’s Speech will not have clout if FE is considered second best to HE. The £1.8 billion to upgrade the infrastructure does not come close to what is required for FE in England. Frankly, it is too little too late. A lot of that money will be used up dealing with a backlog of maintenance problems and ​ongoing issues. Given the huge number of locations delivering FE in England, what has been proposed is merely a small sticking plaster to cover a huge, gaping wound.

City of Glasgow College, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), is one of the institutions that have benefited from the £810 million invested by the Scottish Government since 2007. That is approximately 45% of the amount that the UK Government are proposing to invest in FE in England, which is far closer to the figure that is required. Scaled up, it would be £8 billion, not £1.8 billion.

City of Glasgow College benefited hugely from the Scottish Government’s investment, receiving £228 million to create a “supercampus” for 40,000 youngsters in Glasgow. The college sits between two higher education institutions, Strathclyde and Glasgow Caledonian Universities. For a long time, youngsters attending colleges felt second best because their institutions looked second best, but City of Glasgow College is the absolute jewel of Cathedral street in the centre of Glasgow, and no young people studying at that college consider themselves to be second best.

Let me say something about schools. School funding is an ongoing issue. In England, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, school spending per pupil has fallen by 8% in real terms since 2010. That entirely contradicts the Prime Minister, who has said that school spending is at record levels.

Sir Desmond Swayne

The two are not mutually exclusive. School funding is at record levels, although pupil numbers grew faster during that period, putting pressure on and reducing the amount per pupil. Will the hon. Lady accept that, even given that reduction, we still spend more per pupil than any other rich nation in the world—more than Japan or Germany—with the exception of the USA?

Carol Monaghan

But you spend significantly less per pupil than we spend in Scotland. Even with the Government’s proposals—even with the increase in per-pupil funding—you are still not coming close to what we are spending per pupil.

Sir Desmond Swayne

And the results in Scotland are not as good as those in England. Not every problem is solved by throwing more money at it. Just look at the studies by the Programme for International Student Assessment which were released only recently.

Carol Monaghan

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned the PISA studies, because that gives me an opportunity to talk about them. Let us talk about PISA. What exactly is it? It is an extremely crude metric that looks at very particular things. What it does not look at are communication skills. It does not look at problem-solving skills, and it does not look at employability skills. Those are the very skills that employers have been asking for, which is why we transformed our curriculum in Scotland. Countries that do well in PISA, such as China and South Korea, also have extremely high levels of student suicide. I do not want that for my young people in Scotland, and not one of us should. China also selects the pupils whom it puts forward for PISA. So there are many things that are wrong with it.​

These are the questions on which we should be judging our young people. Are they in employment? Yes. Are they having a positive experience? Yes. Are they developing the skills that employers and businesses are asking for? Absolutely.

Jonathan Gullis

The hon. Lady has mentioned PISA. Does she not share the concern of Conservative and, I hope, Opposition Members about the decline among students in Scotland in maths and science—which provide the vital skills to which she referred—in comparison with their compatriots in England?

Carol Monaghan

When I look at the tiny differences between students in England and students in Scotland—and there are tiny differences—and at the holistic education that has been developed in Scotland, no, I do not share that concern. Scottish students are developing a broad range of skills. Unlike youngsters in England whose curriculum is being squeezed and narrowed, they still have a broad range from which to choose. No: I absolutely defend our Scottish education system. In the last 10 years, our attainment gap has narrowed, while we are still battling with the effects of austerity. The hon. Gentleman is a teacher. I am a teacher too. I have been there, trying to teach children who have had no breakfast. How can we deal with an attainment gap when the kids who we are teaching are so hungry that they cannot concentrate? That is what we should be looking at.

I mentioned teachers’ pay earlier. It is a bold statement that, by September 2022, the Government will increase teachers’ starting salary to £30,000. Great; fantastic; but Scotland is already there. From this year, after their initial probation year, Scottish teachers will be earning £32,994. That is happening now, but unfortunately this Government are miles behind. If we are talking about teaching as a profession—if we are talking about valuing the very people who make the difference to our young people—we need to pay them properly.

The Secretary of State did not answer my question about the guaranteeing of teaching salaries in academies. For too long, academies have been able to set their own pay scales, and to work outside the scales that are negotiated with teachers’ unions and the profession. Academies pay what they want, and that means, once again, that they are able to pay salaries that are below the nationally agreed levels. Yes, in some cases they may pay above, but they often pay below, and that is certainly not the way to encourage others to join the profession. In Scotland we have more teachers per pupil, and that too must be looked at: while the Government are sorting out the salary, they might deal with that as well.

Let me now say something about tertiary education. We in Scotland are often attacked about the number of youngsters achieving entry to university. As I have said, I do not make the distinction, but for the benefit of those who do, I will say some things about universities. The largest-ever number of Scottish students are at universities, and record numbers of our poorest students are going to them: 15.6% of full-time first-degree entrants are from the most deprived areas of Scotland. That is tackling inequality in a real way.

In January last year, the Commissioner for Fair Access, Sir Peter Scott, said that “significant, and welcome progress” had been made on access, and that

“Scotland is now the pace-setter among UK nations in fair access to higher education”.​

He went on to say that Scotland’s improving widening access figures vindicated our free tuition policy. He said:

“The latest figures vindicate Scotland’s policy of free higher education, which of course has other aims apart from making universities more socially inclusive—not least the commitment that higher education should be seen as a public good from which society as a whole benefits and not just as a private investment producing higher earnings for individuals.”

Sir Desmond Swayne

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way again. She is most generous. How can it be a vindication for a Scottish university such as St Andrews—a Scottish university—to limit its intake of Scottish students to 20% of the university population?

Carol Monaghan

Despite that, more Scottish students are achieving a university education than ever before. I am happy with that. There has again been a nod to the Augar review, which was mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State. “Considering thoughtfully the recommendations made in the Augar review”: what does that mean? What does it mean for the higher education institutions that are thinking about their funding for August and September this year? Will it be £7,500, or will it be £9,250? What will the fees be?

Of course we would welcome any reduction in fees for students in England. That would be of benefit, but it will not be of benefit to have student loans with no time limit. At the moment, we write them off after a period of time, but to allow those student loans ad infinitum, as is being suggested, is extremely worrying. We would be burdening young people not with 30 years of debt but with a lifetime of debt.

Scotland’s universities are internationally successful but we know that Brexit threatens that, and we have not had the assurances we need at this stage to put our minds at ease.

Ben Lake (Ceredigion) (PC)

Does the hon. Lady agree with my concern that institutions such as Aberystwyth University in Wales still have no clarity as to whether they will receive the same level of investment for research and innovation as they did under the European structural funds?

Carol Monaghan

Yes, absolutely. We have had these generous promises of money to match European funds. I would like to see us continuing in Horizon 2020 or the next version of it. That would be the best way. I am concerned about the funding, because it is important for any research group or higher education institution. However, this is not just about the funding; it is about the collaboration. When we start removing European funding, we also remove the infrastructure around rich collaborations that have been going on for many decades. Also, EU staff account for about 11% of our staff in Scotland, but they are still not sure what their position is.

A recent report from the Royal Society has shown that the UK’s share of EU funding has fallen by €500 million since 2015. There has also been a drop of 40% in UK applications to Horizon 2020. We are still in it just now, but we have had that drop because people do not have any certainty. The UK is now seen as a less attractive place to come and do research, with 35% fewer scientists coming to the UK through key schemes. That is ​of concern, as is Erasmus and what Brexit will mean for that programme. We know about the benefits of young people coming here on Erasmus and of our young people managing to travel throughout Europe on Erasmus. They are young people for whom this opportunity would not historically have been available, and it will potentially not be available again. It would be useful if the Minister could confirm whether it is the Government’s intention for us to continue to associate with Erasmus and whether we are going to pay into it.

David Linden (Glasgow East) (SNP)

When the Secretary of State opened the debate, he spoke about the importance of Erasmus, but does my hon. Friend find the Government’s warm words about Erasmus bizarre, given that they voted against the amendment to the Brexit legislation last week that would have committed them to working with Erasmus?

Carol Monaghan

Yes, and we are talking about very little money. It really is a small amount of money that would allow our continued participation and that valuable and rich experience for young people to continue, so this makes absolutely no sense to us.

I have yet to see any evidence, in the few years that I have been a Member of this Parliament, of this Government really considering education to be a societal good. We saw the abandonment of the nursing bursary. Obviously, we then had a drop in applications. The Government then partially went back on that, but nurses will still have to pay them £9,000-odd a year, regardless of the nursing bursary, so I am not seeing that.

The Secretary of State also talked of collaboration and the sharing of best practice between Scotland and England. That is brilliant. I am really pleased to hear that, and I hope that he is going to match our per-pupil funding, our teacher-pupil ratio, our teachers’ pay, including for teachers in academies, and our commitment to further and higher education. I also hope that, rather than giving young people debt through fees of £9,000-odd or £7,000 a year, this Government will look at abandoning tuition fees altogether. Let us look to best practice: look to Scotland.