Half term for most students – and teachers – is a chance to take stock and prepare for the rest of the term ahead. For many year 7s, it has been an eventful first part of term, settling into a new school and getting used to secondary education. However, for some young people in Oxford East, school hasn’t yet begun, or is on long-term hold.
I regularly receive emails from constituents detailing their struggles to get their children an education. Some children in Oxford were initially allocated school places two bus journeys and over an hour away. The assumption often seems to have been that a parent would be available to drive their children to these schools. But the logistics of coping with a child sent to a school outside the city are extremely difficult for many families, who may already be juggling the school pick-up with shift work or uncertain working hours- and of course, the additional journeys do not help our environment, either.
Some other parents struggled to find their children a school place at all. It was only earlier this year that parents of the 120 children who had been allocated a place at the new free school, the Swan School, remained unsure that their children would have a school place in September, as the government dragged their feet over signing the funding deal. At the time, I wrote to the Department for Education, asking them to ensure funding was secured so the school could open in September. The uncertainty placed a further burden on the County Council admissions office and caused immeasurable stress for local children and parents- as well as teachers at the new school.
Parents of children with special needs face particular issues, with their children often being shunted from authority to authority and committee to committee – all while their children are either out of school, or in a school which cannot adequately provide for their needs.
And while I have been encouraged by announcements that Northfield School will be rebuilt, over recent months there has been too much uncertainty for parents, children and teachers, as it was unclear whether local boys with social, emotional and mental health difficulties would be educated at the present site, or would continue to be sent outside the city.
We simply should not be in a position where Oxford parents are having to struggle, simply to ensure that their children receive an education.
At the root of these problems seems to be the chronic underfunding of our education system and national education policy. Funding for per-pupil costs is now being top-sliced in Oxfordshire to provide for Special Needs provision, because the Special Needs budget from government is just too small. And councils are unable to control admissions and school location decisions because of the proliferation of new school types like academies and free schools.
Our city houses two world-class universities, and our population is one of the most highly-educated in Europe. We surely must do more to ensure that all of our children can actually attend the right local school for them.