Munira Wilson – 2022 Speech on the Future of the UK

The speech made by Munira Wilson, the Liberal Democrat MP for Twickenham, in the House of Commons on 16 May 2022.

Throughout the pandemic, children and young people have paid a very high price in their liberty, learning loss and mental wellbeing. We had the hokey-cokey of school reopenings and exams inflicted on parents, pupils and teachers, but our young people have shown remarkable resilience and school staff rose to the challenge. Now is the time to recognise those challenges and sacrifices. Now is the time to address the widening attainment gap between the wealthiest and the poorest children. Now is the time to embrace new ways of teaching and learning, as well as to capitalise on new levels of parental engagement. I am afraid that Her Majesty’s Gracious Speech failed our children spectacularly. Only one sentence was dedicated to children or education—yet here we are with the most severe disruption to our schools for two years and crises in children’s mental health and special educational needs and disability.

The Education Secretary has managed to secure parliamentary time for a schools Bill and he is using that precious time to tinker with school structures—what a waste. This technocratic Schools Bill tinkers around the edges of the management and governance of schools and is not what parents, pupils or employers are crying out for. They want a broader offer that equips our young people with broader life skills and experiences that nurture creativity, build resilience and teamwork, and boost their wellbeing.

All of us, on both sides of the House, want to see children in school and are alarmed by the large numbers of children missing from school. I am concerned, however, that the Government’s zero-tolerance approach overlooks the needs of children who might be struggling with their mental health or special needs. We need to identify and tackle the root causes of school absence, rather than go for the “all stick and no carrot” approach.

I hope that the Government will use the clauses in the Bill that relate to the funding formula to reverse the devaluation of the pupil premium. I am proud that that Liberal Democrat policy to support the poorest pupils was introduced when we were in the coalition Government, but it has been cut in real terms by £160 per primary child and £127 per secondary pupil over the past seven years since we left Government. With the attainment gap growing, the pupil premium must be restored to its original value if the Government really are serious about levelling up.

Time and again in this place, I have highlighted the growing mental health crisis among children and young people. We know that unhappy children are less able to learn, thrive and perform well. Our teachers are overburdened and unable to cope with the immense challenges around pupil wellbeing, yet there was no reference in the Queen’s Speech to the urgent action that we need. I suggest that we need an urgent children and young people’s mental health recovery plan. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is here, and in the same way that he has focused on the elective care backlog, I implore him to come up with a similar plan on children’s mental health, because it is desperately needed. We would not ignore a child with a broken leg, yet too many children who are mentally unwell cannot cope without access to the help and support that they need. Liberal Democrats are calling for a dedicated, qualified mental health professional in every school.

Finally, there was no reference to catch-up funding either. The Sutton Trust found that more than two thirds of primary heads are struggling to help children due to a lack of catch-up funding. Schools in my constituency are drawing on parental donations to support children with catch-up. This is a political choice. People may no longer want to talk about the pandemic, but its impact on our young people and our economy will be felt for decades if the right investment is not forthcoming.

I call again on the Government to step up and provide the full £15 billion of catch-up funding that was recommended by their adviser, Sir Kevan Collins. The Education Policy Institute said that the cost to the economy of lost learning could run into the trillions—I repeat, the trillions—over the next 80 years, and that is based on OECD data. That is many times the return on investment of key infrastructure projects, if the full £15 billion catch-up funding is committed. Let us start treating our children—the future generation on whom we will all be reliant one day—as an investment and not as a cost. Sadly, the Queen’s Speech has largely ignored them.