As a Member of Parliament representing around 40 schools – varying from very small rural primaries to our larger secondaries – I always enjoy engaging with pupils of all ages and hearing how they see the world in which I work. Earlier this week I was able to join Wells Hall Primary School, Sudbury, as they attended the Education Centre in Parliament.
This is a relatively recent construction within the Palace of Westminster, providing an excellent facility for pupils to learn more about our political system – and the importance of democratic values - but also to hold mock debates and generally understand more about our ancient legislature. Before taking some excellent questions from visiting Wells Hall pupils, I watched them conduct a debate in their own mini House of Commons, with proper ‘bobbing’ - i.e., rising in their seat to indicate to the Speaker their wish to speak (the Speaker in question also being a pupil, performing the task with authoritative aplomb).
Given my passion for ensuring that we do everything possible to support local schools, it was very disappointing to hear that one teaching union has voted to strike in the coming weeks. Following the massive disruption to children’s learning in the pandemic, this is far from welcome – especially when Unions called for £2bn of further funding at the Autumn Statement to help with funding pressures, including pay, which was delivered for this year and the next. Yet still pupils may lose precious days of education, whilst parents face significant disruption to their working lives.
I hope that schools are able to do everything possible to stay open as far as possible, not least to support working parents. I will certainly be pushing for this when discussing the matter with fellow Ministers, and I am hoping that we can keep detrimental impact to children’s learning to a minimum.
But for all the bad news arising from industrial action, we have a very good news on the education front, when it comes to local provision. The significant rebuild now confirmed for Ormiston Sudbury Academy is likely to represent a major multi-million pound investment in our town, from central Government – bearing in mind that rebuilds such as this are relatively rare. We must make the most of it.
As a parent with two children at Thomas Gainsborough School in Great Cornard, I’m well aware of how new school buildings can boost standards and drive educational improvement. Of course, Ormiston is making progress and there is much to be positive about – despite its relatively old buildings. Nevertheless, in all my visits there I’ve been clear that a new building had to be a priority, a point shared very strongly by the Principal and Academy leaders, and that’s why I took the time to meet with Education Ministers and officials to push for Ormiston’s inclusion in rebuild funding schemes.
Whilst the ultimate result will be subject to planning and a feasibility study, likely to report in early summer, it was great to hear from Department for Education officials last week that investment in Ormiston is likely to involve a ‘significant rebuild’, with a new building of the highest eco standards, in turn cutting energy costs and emissions.
In writing about industrial action, I should underline that I entirely appreciate how challenging the cost of living is – I’ve been writing about it in this column since last spring. It’s precisely because the Government understands how challenging these times have been that we’ve spent billions directly supporting families and businesses with energy prices, on a scale not unlike our pandemic intervention.
To underline this point, a typical household will receive around £1300 in energy support this winter. This comprises the Energy Price Guarantee, putting a government funded cap on domestic energy bills, and which the independent OBR estimates will be worth £900 for the typical household this winter – plus, direct cost of living payments of £400 for every household.
In addition, there are further payments for the most vulnerable groups, e.g., pensioners and those on benefits. Of particular interest in South Suffolk, the additional £200 payment to those on heating oil will be paid in February.
As a Treasury Minister I’ve been keenly aware of how fine a line we’ve had to tread, on the one hand being financially prudent to fight inflation, whilst on the other hand ensuring increased funding for schools and the NHS, plus enormous levels of energy support. It’s a difficult balance, but with local investment in our children’s future, this is good news in challenging times.
Published by the Suffolk Free Press.